A wasteland no more

In May 1961 FCC Chairman Newton Minnow gave his famous speech condemning network television as “a vast wasteland.” However accurate Minnow’s evaluation was at the time, it has certaintly lost its salience over the years. Today much of the best dramatic and comedy writing is done for television rather than theater or film. Why is that so?

Paul Cantor is the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia and an extremely observant student of popular culture. Professor Cantor is the author of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, a book demonstrating that even in the television era Minnow castigated, an intelligent observer could find much of interest in the medium.

Yet Professor Cantor finds that television has matured as a medium. He argues that “the best products of the medium have developed the aesthetic virtues traditionally associated with books — complex and large-scale narratives, depth of characterization, seriousness of themes, and richness of language.”

Professor Cantor’s review/essay “Is there intelligent life on television” is one of the highlights of the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here) that our friends at the magazine have let us preview this week. The essay explores the development of television as a writer’s medium.

It is difficult to excerpt Professor Cantor’s long essay. His comments on the famous Frankfurt School critic Theodor Adorno and Adorno’s pioneering 1954 essay “How to Look at Televsion” are particularly entertaining. Adorno, Cantor writes, may well be the first major intellectual figure to have written about television and perhaps the most prominent critic ever to have done so. Adorno’s essay has proved influential — its influence, direct or indirect, can even be seen in Minnow’s speech — but “Adorno shows little awareness that he is dealing with a medium in its earlierst stages, that it might develop into something more sophisticated and genuinely artistic in the future.”

Cantor finds Adorno’s critique wanting in fundamental respects even with respect to the shows of the era:

Adorno’s contempt for American television leads him to treat it in an unscholarly manner. He does not even bother to name the particular shows he is discussing because evidently they all pretty much looked the same to him. One of his examples must be a sitcom I remember called Our Miss Brooks. Here is Adorno’s capsule description: “the heroine of an extremely light comedy of pranks is a young schoolteacher who is not only underpaid but is incessantly fined by the caricature of a pompous and authoritarian school principal.” I have trouble recognizing the show I remember with some fondness in Adorno’s characterization: “The supposedly funny situations consist mostly of her trying to hustle a meal from various acquaintances, but regularly without success.” One begins to suspect that Adorno’s readings of American television are telling us as much about him as they do about television. I hate to think that the great anti-fascist intellectual had an authoritarian personality himself, but he seems to be suspiciously unnerved by the typically American negative attitude toward authority figures, especially when he sees it displayed by women. Could it be that when Adorno looked at Principal Osgood Conklin of Our Miss Brooks, he was having flashbacks to Professor Immanuel Rath of The Blue Angel, and couldn’t bear the image of academic authority humiliated by underlings and students? After all, Germans have always respected their teachers much more than Americans do. One shudders to think what Adorno would have made of Bart Simpson’s treatment of Principal Seymour Skinner.

Professor Cantor’s enlightening essay embodies his thesis regarding recent books about television discussed in the essay: “The reading public is still interested in thoughtful intellectual conversation about what has always made for good narratives in any medium–complex plot lines, interesting characters, serious and even philosophical issues, and insights into the human condition.”.

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