Quality Popular Television (eds. Mark Jancovich, James Lyons)

Mark Jancovich and James Lyons (eds.)
Quality Popular Television
London: BFI, 2003

It may have been television scholar David Marc, referred to admiringly in this volume, who first observed that high-culture critics almost uniformly considered films to be dreck until television—when they enshrined the cinema auteur. At the next stage, thanks probably to the near-simultaneous onset of cable and of high-profile prime time (commercials for Volvos, etc., especially notable for the melancholy-liberal Hill Street Blues), some television was accorded the status of “art.”  This process was ironic and confused, in no small part because intelligent reviews had been appearing in the daily press since at least 1950, hailing the presence of precisely something that would later be called “quality”: serious drama and “docudrama” that has appeared and disappeared, era to era, from the the early days of live television to the present.

A worthy effort in several ways, Quality Popular Television seems blithely aware of this extended saga and of yet another irony buried deep in the story:  disguised leftwing politics. The quality show of the Golden Age was You Are There (1952-55), secretly scripted by three blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters. The best of the Golden Age drama, extending into the middle 1960s, came from the same direction, the Popular Front modes of the war years developed onward, with a new generation of writers too young to have been Reds but sharing the same gritty realism. All of this pretty much died (although a good case could be made for the 1970s made-for-television film, especially on themes of gender), not so much because of red-baiting as because the audience became steadily more Middle American with the spread of the networks, and because the sales-pitch of products seemed blunted by what was labeled by advertising and network executives as “depressing” drama. Sans censorship, we have been living with the ups and downs of a similar story ever since.

The book’s Introduction hits a high point by observing that postmodern television, at its best (they name Barry Levinson’s Homicide: Life On the Streets, though the book was published too early for Angels in America, an astonishing tour de force), may be equal to anything that contemporary film has to offer. For good reasons. The toughest of the social dramas in Hollywood’s own Golden Age were made on relatively low budgets by Warner Brothers. Now HBO, as a film producer, has come to occupy the place of the social film producer. Its hard-hitting drama, either badly out of sync with the rightward swerve of American politics or in response to the public craving for something very much in opposition, doest not bust the budget with Hollywood-style special effects. The aesthetic and the appeal is elsewhere.

The rest of Quality Popular Television suggests the difficulty of realizing this (or any other) clearly articulated perspective. The problems of producing quality television are mostly talked around, poked and prodded, rather than tackled outright. The old deconstructive debate of narrative strategies falls rather flat, a reminder of how far we have come since the discussions of the 1980s. Some of the most useful essays struggle intelligently to make sense of the internationalization of English-language television from the US and US to Canada, Australia and beyond—although no one thinks to mention that the original British hit in the US was the most singularly rebellious, Robin Hood (1956-59), once again the product of blacklistees in hiding. How the best television actually got produced remains a mystery, perhaps because we learn nothing about writers, or political-cultural conjunctions outside the realm of content as such.

One should not be harsh, because television criticism remains in its infancy. But when will it grow up?


Paul Buhle, Brown University