Television: A Biography

“Only The Cosby Show consistently kept its head above the 30 line; by 1989–90, that was still the top show, but at 23.1. The following year it was Cheers, at 21.3. Was the audience bored, or was the television set beginning to offer so many alternatives that being top meant living at a lower altitude? In its “difficulty” and its appetite for human variety, naturalism, and a greater sense of thematic danger, Hill Street Blues was a harbinger of cable. HBO had been formed in 1972. It was still only a toddler ten years later, but it would be an answer to questions very few had yet thought to formulate.”
“No symbol of television in the late seventies and eighties is more dated than TV Guide, the weekly publication that made a fortune by letting a viewer know all that was playing.”
“One writer noticed the double act: The show was built on an entrancing pseudo-effect of the real: that the very ordinary couple portrayed was played by a real couple, one of whom was extremely famous, successful, and rich. Lucille Ball, a real star, became a goofy housewife named Lucy Ricardo, but nobody was fooled. Didn’t we smile when we saw the heart-shaped logo at the end…? That was the fun of it—the confusion and mixture of televised fantasy and voyeuristically apprehended reality. A dose of fantasy. And the insinuation that we might be watching something real. Which has turned out, fifty years later, to be television’s perennial, still winning formula. That was Susan Sontag.”
“Yet some would argue that soccer’s dislike of those time-outs has been an impediment to the reluctant advance of the game in the United States, compared with its rule in Europe and South America. The thing that spectators cherish, the uninterrupted live sequence of the game, is antithetical to commercial television.”
“The rather vague principle of the show was to follow a comedian in his whole life, with emphasis on how things that happened to him worked their way into his material.”
“E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace reckoned that one great benefit of television was that it was the window where fiction writers could get a proper sense of the range of life and the genres of vitality. He understood the irony in that distancing, but he guessed that many classic novelists had learned about life…from reading novels. So let’s enjoy our screens, for a few days an hour.”