[Posted by Jeremy Grayson]
People sometimes ask me: “How do you know so much about television?” (Well, technically, they ask “Why do you know so much about television?”) Truth be told, I was not born with a silver remote in my mouth. I accumulated this knowledge through reading. Lots of reading.
In the last decade alone, literally hundreds of books have been written on the world of television. Some focus on its history, some on its qualitative peaks and troughs. Some focus on one series, others tackle an entire genre. Some of them are rich with insight, while others simply tell you little-known facts about Tony Danza’s favorite foods.
What follows are eight books that I’ve found particularly useful in my quest to become a TV master (whatever the heck that is). These books are not named in any particular order, nor are they necessarily the eight best or most insightful publications on the subject. They’re simply the best gateways into the world behind your TV set. If you truly want to learn the ins and outs of television (and – let’s face it – you totally do), these books are the best place to start.
TV: The Book (Alan Sepinwall & Matt Zoller Seitz, 2016)
It’s probably fitting to name this one first, since it was the subject of much press when it was first released last year. Written by a pair of talented critics, TV: The Book uses a carefully-calibrated rubric to name the 100 greatest American shows of all time. Each entry features an engaging essay written by either Sepinwall or Seitz (or, in some instances, both), and the book features a variety of extras (including side-lists, like “TV’s Best Hairstyles” and “TV’s Best Vehicles”). There are also special sections devoted to miniseries, TV movies, and “A Certain Regard,” which lists a string of honorable mentions.
The most impressive thing about TV: The Book is its scope. Though, as the cover notes, the book limited to American shows, there isn’t a single genre of scripted TV that doesn’t receive its due respect. The shows listed range from the 1950s to the 2010s, and no era feels short-changed. It’s a marvelous tribute to the medium at large.
The Platinum Age of Television (David Bianculli, 2016)
David Bianculli has been a TV critic since the 1970s, and wrote Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously (1992), one of the first books that treated the medium as a true artform. And recently, he published a book tracking its artfulness from the beginning.
Published just two months after the Sepinwall/Seitz magnum opus, The Platinum Age of Television (subtitled “From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific”) charts the progress of over twenty different TV genres from the 1950s to the present day. Bianculli draws parallels over the decades from Rocky & Bullwinkle to South Park, from Gunsmoke to Deadwood, and from Mission: Impossible to The Americans.
Each show listed – over a hundred in total – gets its own entertaining essay, and the book is punctuated by a series of interviews with famous TV legends (Carl Reiner, James Brooks, Aaron Sorkin, and many others). It’s a thorough and engaging book overall, and a must-read for anyone interested in the history of quality TV.
Television: A Biography (David Thomson, 2016)
Thomson, a British film critic, might not seem like the best choice to helm a book charting the history of American TV. But after 50 years of writing dozens of books about the world of film, it’s understandable that he’d want a change of pace. The result is a remarkable biography into television from the medium’s inception to the modern day. Along the way, he underscores how ubiquitous the medium has become – what once unified families each evening has now splintered into so many genres, for so many audiences, that few people have the same shows in common.
Thomson’s book focuses not merely on television’s history, but its influence, both in scripted and unscripted form. Its ability to compartmentalize the daily news has doubtlessly had a profound impact on the world – but has also served to simplify our consumption of world events and figures. (Thomson reserves special criticism for Donald Trump, and his ability to use television to gain popularity and power over the years.)
Overall, it’s a great read, particularly for film buffs familiar with Thomson’s other work.
Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live (James A. Miller & Tom Shales, 2002, 2015)
Saturday Night Live is among the longest-running shows in TV history… and among the most uneven. The show’s constant ups-and-downs – from its surprise hit status in the late ‘70s, to its fall from and return to grace in the ‘80s, to the many, many stars it catapulted to fame in the ‘90s and beyond – are charted here in a thorough history filled with behind-the-scenes interviews with the show’s myriad comedians and crewmembers.
Live From New York is not the first oral TV history book – that would arguably be The Box (1995) – but it’s among the most thorough, cramming decades of fascinating history into a few hundred pages, charting the rise of one of television’s most groundbreaking and iconic shows.
The original edition was published in 2002. An updated edition was released in 2015, charting the various developments SNL went through in the early 21st century. Given how strong the show’s ratings have been lately, it’s possible we’ll be getting a third edition within a decade or two.
Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything (Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, 2016)
It was a coin toss between this and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted (2013), Armstrong’s book about the history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. While both these books are worth reading, Seinfeldia gets the edge for the energized spin it takes in retelling the story of one of television’s greatest sitcoms.
Seinfeld, like SNL, has transcended its TV roots and become a crucial piece of American culture. But it’s become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to think we know the whole story. Not so, says Armstrong, who pulls back the curtain on a show that owed its very existence to a network miracle, and spent years struggling in the ratings before rocketing to the title of the most popular show on television. Seinfeldia is an eye-opening read, both as a history of a TV show and an analysis of pop-culture Americana.
Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad (K. Dale Koontz & Ensley F. Guffey, 2014)
There are hundreds and hundreds of “TV companion” books (each designed as an episode guide of a specific show), and there’s absolutely no way I could list them all. So I’ll just focus on my all-time favorite.
Wanna Cook? features extensive write-ups on every episode of Breaking Bad, digging deep into the show’s complicated themes and characters. The writers highlight little details about the show, with hundreds of trivia tidbits and handy information for the show’s biggest fans. There are also several side-chapters devoted to analyzing the show’s cinematography, its use of violence and antihero tropes, and the fan backlash to Skylar. All that’s missing is an in-depth analysis of exploding turtles. (And if the writers had the space, they’d probably include that, too.)
Breaking Bad is among the most heavily analyzed shows in television history, and there’s no question that it will inspire more literary works in the future. But I defy any of these books to be as insightful or thought-provoking as Wanna Cook?
Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV (Ben Shapiro, 2011)
How you respond to a book like Primetime Propaganda will likely depend on your own political leanings, but there’s no denying its convictions. Ben Shapiro (founder of the conservative website Daily Wire) charts the history of scripted television from the 1950s to the 21st century with an underlying thesis: that the medium has, over the years, become a liberal soapbox.
Shapiro focuses on how televised politics have grown from metaphorical (Star Trek, The Twilight Zone) to textual (Law & Order, The West Wing), dissecting dozens of beloved shows to trace the progressive line from Leave It to Beaver all the way to Modern Family. Through it all, he interviews dozens of famous television writers and producers on the subject of Hollywood liberalism and anti-conservative discrimination.
At its worst, Primetime Propaganda can border on nitpicky. (The page on Happy Days feels particularly strained.) But overall, it’s an eye-opening account on how politics have influenced the world of television.
Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV (Warren Littlefield, 2012)
We viewers tend to think of network executives as evil corporate suits, the sort of soulless money-lovers who cancel Firefly and keep forcing reality TV garbage onto the viewers. But there’s a method to the average network president’s madness – and it’s a method perfectly exemplified by Top of the Rock.
Warren Littlefield, who ran NBC from 1992 to 1998, gives us an oral history of one of the most successful runs in primetime television history. These were the golden years of Seinfeld, ER, Frasier, Friends, and so many others, and Littlefield explains how, with one show after another, NBC built itself into a powerhouse of (as its Thursday night block was dubbed) Must-See TV.
Interviews run the gamut from actors and writers to producers and directors who contributed to NBC during the 1990s. But the drama is hinged on Littlefield’s own journey, watching his network build upward and upward – to the day it inevitably fell. It’s a story that anyone can enjoy, regardless of how they feel about network heads in general.
And once you’ve finished those eight, here’s another octet of worthy television-based books:
The Revolution Was Televised (Alan Sepinwall, 2012/2015)
Season Finale (Susan Daniels and Cynthia Littleton, 2009)
Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street (Michael Davis, 2008)
Television’s Second Golden Age (Robert Thompson, 1997)
Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted (Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, 2013)
How to Watch Television (Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, 2013)
The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961 (Jeff Kisseloff, 1995)
Desperate Networks (Bill Carter, 2006)