Favourite Books About TV
Monday is about movies. And sometimes TV. I haven't written about TV for a while, and then I read a review of a new book about the medium...
I haven’t written about TV here for some time. It’s all been movies. And that’s (largely) because I have been watching a lot of films. I’m always watching a lot of films. And though I do clock up the TV hours too, I feel like, right now, I’m not really connected to any must-watch TV shows, nor do I have anything much to say about the shows I’m rewatching; certainly nothing new to say…
Obviously, it’s all relative. My “nothing” might baffle someone else, might seem like more TV than you’re prepared to get through ever. Or it might genuinely seem like I watch so little television as for it to seem a joke I ever considered myself able to write on the medium at all.
There’s a new three-part true-crime doc on Netflix every week it seems. And I am still watching a few of them, even though I often feel gross about what the true crime medium has done; created a pack of wannabe amateur sleuths, all of us disappointed that someone else’s very real misery didn’t quite hit hard enough when the twist was served.
I am watching After The Party on TVNZ+, which is absolutely brilliant. But there’s one episode to go and it feels wrong to set up any chat about it that might contain spoilers. If you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend diving in. Six episodes, the final will hit next Sunday. Robyn Malcolm leads. She’s always great, but never better here. It’s lovely seeing Wellington on the screen in this way. And the story is dark, important, and captivating. The show feels very real, very realistic. I’m now just crossing fingers that the finale is going to give us what we deserve.
Other than that, I’m rewatching The Sopranos, which always rewards. And truly deserves its place at (or near) the top of the heap when thinking of the golden era of television. An era that has lasted so long, given us so many gems, and feels like it is over. Or about to be.
Last night I read about a new book by Peter Biskind that dishes the dirt on some of the best TV shows of the last three decades. Biskind is a brilliant writer of such gossip, an expert collector and curator of such stories.
It might have been the very first full post in the life of this newsletter I think, but I wrote about a book that told the story of the movie Chinatown, and mentioned Peter Biskind’s classic text, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which, as its title winks to us, is about the classic films of the 1970s (bookmarked by the two movie titles that provide its title). That’s one of my favourite books about cinema, and if you revisit that post (or check it out for the first time) you’ll see a small list of other great books about cinema.
Biskind’s latest, Pandora's Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV, feels like a must-read. In fact it already feels like my new favourite summer holiday read. I’ve added it to the list. He explores the making of The Sopranos, and Mad Men and Breaking Bad, how all three shows were laughed at by top brass and rejected from key networks. There are other examples too. That’s a real pattern with a lot of the TV from the last two-to-three decades that we consider pioneering, or just brilliant. It was laughed out of its first pitch meeting.
Biskind is a cultural critic. He’s now in his 80s, so I can’t see his views always aligning with mine, and that’s good too of course - but I was pleased to note, from the review I read (and linked to) that he loves Justified, and thought Mad Men “wildly uneven, with beautifully realised episodes cheek by jowl with clunky ones”. Me too, Peter.
I’m’a lap that book right up!
I think, currently, my favourite book about TV - certainly TV of the modern/ish era, is Emily Nussbaum’s I Like To Watch: Arguing My Way Through The TV Revolution - which is one of just a couple of things I reviewed for The Spinoff. Nussbaum is a brilliant writer and critic, and this book is a collection of essays (and reviews, or reviews within essays) of most of the big name TV of the last decade or so.
This got me to thinking about books that cover TV. Mostly, I read about individual shows. I thought I’d drop in a few favourites here, since I’ve long ago shared some favourite books about cinema.
The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night and Letterman: The Last Giant Of Late Night are both about David Letterman and his late night talk show. The first (1994) is most concerned with the behind the scenes backstabbing that positioned Letterman and Jay Leno against one another. There was already a professional rivalry between the two comics, and the TV networks played that to the hilt. The more recent book (2017) celebrates Letterman as the modern day king of the format, pointing out that when he signed off from his show the audience lost its insider. Dave, whatever you thought of him, was on our side. He asked the bored questions, he doubted the credibility of some of his guests. Those eyerolls were on our behalf. He wanted more than just the obvious, repeated talking points. He wanted grit and soul from his guests, and if he didn’t get it he was quite prepare to mock them to their faces.
Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons and My Life as a Ten Year Old Boy: Life of Bart Simpson I’m no Simpsons die-hard. But I was lucky to be alive and watching it as a it evolved. I remember watching it, shaky as an episode of Dr. Katz in its five-minute allocations as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. And then in its golden period, which is essentially 1991-1997. I have tuned in for a few more over the years, but it’s now been on for longer than I care to remember, and I last remembered to care about it at the very beginning of this new millennium. But I do like the Springfield Confidential book, because the writing of the show was often brilliant. And this book is as much about being a TV writer as it is about the actual show. And though Nancy Cartwright does seem like A LOT and feels far too pleased with herself, her memoir (as the voice of Bart Simpson) does have some great behind-the-scenes glimpses into how animation is made.
Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live I love SNL. I love when it bombs. I love when it hits. I love the fact that it’s still doing it, and though I’ve not watched whole seasons of it, I feel pretty invested in its pop-culture highlights. I’ve watched docos, gone back and worked through its entire first season - which feels like a trip to a museum really. And I continue to catch the best bits of what’s happening now, as well as having watched whole episodes from pretty much every era/cast. I’ve read a few books about it too - but this is still the best, taking in just the first decade and dishing plenty of dirt at the stars that didn’t get on or seemed very difficult (Chevy Chase).
Seinfeldia: How A Show About Nothing Changed Everything One of Netflix’s greatest failings is its inability to create a truly decent half-hour comedy. And it’s excruciatingly not for wont of trying. I’ve been rewatching Seinfeld (just classic episodes, out of sequence, and wherever my whim takes me) and it’s still such brilliant TV to take in. This book was a lot of fun, arriving at the right time too, when I was well between re-watches.
So Far…by Kelsey Grammer No doubt I’ve read a bunch of star memoirs and actor autobios, but I thought to mention this one because a) Grammer was almost insufferable (in the best way to read about) and had a harrowing time of it with drugs and alcohol and various traumas. And b) whilst I love the show Frasier it’s Cheers I care most about. And so how remarkable to read about a guy who took a bit-part character (who was never meant to be as recurring) and because he needed the win in life he turned the role into one of the most dominant and long-running comedic characters. Yes, yes, white male succeeds. What a shocker. I am aware of that. But this was still an interesting book and those shows still stand up.
There are more books about TV I’ve read and loved, but I can’t think of another along the lines of I Like To Watch, for me it’s been more about individual shows. And to that end, I can’t wait to get my hands on Golden Girls Forever: An Unauthorized Look Behind the Lanai following this year’s exquisite 180-episode, seven-season rewatch!
But for now I’ll look forward to Biskind’s latest book, Pandora's Box: How Guts, Guile, and Greed Upended TV.
How about you? See anything here you’ve read and loved? Anything that jobs the memory. And if not, what are you favourite books about TV?
Weirdly, the only book I have about The Sopranos is the family cookbook. Winningly credited to Artie Bucco.
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