Better Than Benzos

“You say Mr. Rogers was just for children? But many anxious parents watched him and were soothed. Perhaps you underestimate how far we are all kids with TV, or how close he came to being Valium.”

The above thought is just one of the many small pieces of profundity that lace every page of David Thomson’s examination of television as a sociocultural phenomena in America, Television: A Biography. As a much more contemplative and philosophical work, the book makes an excellent companion to the more straightforward history I reviewed here not long ago, The Platinum Age of Television.

This volume is a wonderful example of the book as object. It’s been issued in a slightly larger than average format and is replete with full-page color illustrations.

Television is organized into two main sections, “The Medium” and “The Message.” Within these sections, there lies roughly thematic structure as Thomson searches for meaning in the history and landscape of TV. His insight into what exactly it is TV does for us is exacting and not a little frightening, or even embarrassing. Ultimately, Thomson takes a rather melancholy and pessimistic view of the way and extent we have come to inhabit this “vast wasteland.”

He pointedly addresses that age old phrase we all utter in resignation after hours of channel surfing, “There’s never anything on,” writing:

“You know you have several hundred channels or numbers to choose from. It can seem like the bounty of choice, liberty, America, but it’s an imponderable set of alternatives. So the remote is the best Xanax to quell the melancholy at what the receiver offers.”

Which is to say, no, there’s never anything on, because there’s not supposed to be. Except for the tube itself, of course.

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