Television and American Culture

Article excerpt

Television and American Culture. Jason Mittell. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. 450 pp. $49.95 pbk.

I have been a student for many years, successfully completed untold number of classes, and have collected a handful of advanced degrees. But I have never read a textbook from cover to cover until now. While I have missed the opportunity (or foresight) to take a television studies class in all those years, Jason Mittell' s book went a long way toward formalizing and synthesizing what has been, for me, a fragmented education on a vast and multifaceted subject. Thanks to this unusually engaging and comprehensive text, current and future students of television studies need not suffer a similar deficiency.

Mittell's book captures the subject at a critical juncture. After decades of struggle to become recognized as a valid field of inquiry in the academy, television itself is now looking at an uncertain future both in format and purpose. There is now a solid body of scholarship that considers specific aspects of the intersection of TV and American society, and Mittell cites particular pertinent works in his "Further Reading" sections at the end of each chapter. Gary Edgerton's The Columbia History of American Television (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Erik Barnouw's classic Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television (Oxford, 1990) are fine examples of comprehensive treatments, but most compendia tend toward a chronological paradigm. While many other treatments use a topical, critical theory approach to explore TV and its impact, to date there is nothing as soup-tonuts and simultaneously digestible as what Mittell has done.

Naturally, Mittell, an associate professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury College, and author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge, 2004), speaks to the medium's history, but he does so in the context of the three sections with which he delineates the scope of his book: institutions, meanings, and practices. Within those parameters, he addresses production and ownership; advertising; the FCC and the public interest; narrative and genres; representations of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation; social impact oí viewing; children's viewing; global issues; and technology.

What makes this book so readable is the absence of the soporific neutrality and plodding dullness of the typical textbook. Mittell peppers his book with plenty of specific program examples from across the historical spectrum, and notably starts off with the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake "wardrobe malfunction" incident during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show. He uses this example to illustrate several essential aspects of television, including its role as a for-profit industry; an element of democracy; a creative form; a societal mirror; and a form of technology. …