Leonard on TV : recycling culture

March 09, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Staff

"Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television, and Other American Cultures," by John Leonard. The New Press. 304 pages. $23.

I used to think John Leonard was one of the better second-rate thinkers on the subject of American television. I was wrong.

After slogging through 304 pages of his new, best thoughts on the medium, I am certain - and I mean this in the nicest possible way - this is third-rate television criticism. The irony is I can't imagine anyone publishing this book or paying $23 for it if Leonard himself weren't on television as a critic for CBS' "Sunday Morning."

At his best, Leonard is a poor man's Michael J. Arlen. The main game of both critics is to appropriate the language of literary criticism for their analyses of television.

But Arlen - the former New Yorker critic who wrote such books as "Living-Room War" - uses literature and some of the strategies of literary criticism to help his readers understand television as a cultural force.

He showed continuities and disjuncture between the printed word and television image and, in so doing, illuminated the path television had taken to become the principal storyteller of American life. Arlen's analysis of the impact at home of television coverage of Vietnam was original - the work of a first-rate mind.

Leonard, on the other hand, makes endless references to books and authors for no other apparent reason than to let the reader know he's familiar with them. Maybe the thinking is: If you make enough references to Proust, some readers will take you and what you have to say about "Walker, Texas Ranger" more seriously. Maybe it's just a hangover from his day job as literary co-editor of The Nation.

In "Smoke and Mirrors," Leonard mainly recycles what the first-rate thinkers - like Arlen in the popular press, and John Fiske and Todd Gitlin in their scholarly works - have already told us, in some cases, 15 or more years ago. Sometimes, Leonard credits them, sometimes he doesn't.

"Television flattens everything," he tells us without citing the Gitlin essay titled "Television: Flat and Happy" from which it came in the Wilson Quarterly (Summer 1994).

I stress this because Leonard's publisher is selling this hodge-podge of ragged essays as "a whole new way of thinking about television." The newness? "For Leonard, the sitcom is a socializing agency, the talkshow a legitimizing agency ..."

If any of that strikes you as remotely new, you have neither been watching nor thinking about television for the past two decades.

But the most maddening aspect of this book is that Leonard borrows generalizations that sound impressive and then contradicts them left and right with his own viewing experience - and seems not to notice. In his chapter on drama, he says there was no serious television drama during the 1980s, blaming it on Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Then, he goes on and on about how important and terrific "Hill Street Blues," "St. Elsewhere" and "Cagney & Lacey" were, to name just three '80s dramas.

His worst and most consistent contradiction comes in trying to borrow from cultural studies their crucial insight that, since each viewer "brings to the box our separate embattled selves, a constructed identity" (to use his words), each of us makes

different meanings out of what we see based on who we are.

But, then, he seems utterly baffled as to why his daughter sees television so differently than he does. Worse, he fills the pages with one pronouncement after another as to what "we" think about TV and what this show or that show "means to us."

Once you accept, "separate embattled selves" and "constructed identities," you lose the monolithic notion of audience. And, with that bathwater, out goes the critic's authority to say what a piece "means" to anyone beyond him or herself. That's a concept even a third-rate book of television criticism ought to be able to get right - and I mean that in the nicest possible way.

David Zurawik has been The Sun's television critic since 1989. Before that he wrote about television for the Dallas Times Herald and Detroit Free Press. He also writes about the medium for several publications, including Esquire, TV Guide and the American Journalism Review.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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