If there's one thing we here in the United Kingdom do better than anyone else it's get rained on; but we're also past-masters at complaining about things and in recent years the television has become an enormous target for the wonderful mix of irony, sarcasm and plain old world weary observation. In part it's because the world of television is such a large target, if you look hard enough (or for more than 30 seconds) you can always manage to find something on there which is offensive, stupid or tasteless with relative ease. Television has also become a 'lowest common denominator' format for that essential human social interaction - the telling of stories.
Books on the other hand have been around a lot longer, and while they are now available for very affordable prices they still require a greater amount of effort to digest and interact with than the television. Additionally books communicate to their readers on a different level when compared to television - there is a tendency for books to make assumptions about the common sense and intelligence of their readers, in short - if you read books you're able to make assumptions and come to conclusions without having exposition spoon fed repeatedly into your brain. (Not all books do this, there are still plenty of brilliant low brow books out there.)
Television on the other hand - it's not managed to make this transition and it seems to have gotten stuck in a feedback loop which has resulted in the vast majority of television assuming that it's viewers are incapable of 'getting it' unless 'it' has been served up at least once on an obvious platter labeled "VERY IMPORTANT PLOT POINT. TAKE NOTE!!!!111oneone". This has resulted in encouraging lazy viewing habits from a significant portion of the viewing public, which means they respond best to simplistic and nonthreatening television, which means they get it, which means they watch it, which means I can keep writing that over and over endlessly until we end up with a television show where people shout out what they're doing and why so the viewer isn't confused. ("I AM SITTING IN A CHAIR NOW BECAUSE I AM EATING BECAUSE I AM HUNGRY!")
Not all television is like that, but enough of it is getting that way - and because we British just love to be miserable and point out how bad everything is (especially the weather, it's been terrible here lately) there's a wonderful market for writers to gift us with books which in essence look down on the world of television with a variety of emotions and viewpoints.
What follows is a few of my favourite books on television.
Television With it's Face Torn Off
Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb:
Dispatches from the Idiotic Frontline
Two collections of Brooker's Guardian television opinion pieces/critical reviews - Screen Burn spans from the years of 2000 to 2004 and it covers a lot of the significant events in television from this time, with a mostly British focus. This of television includes such significant moments as the birth of Big Brother, 24, The Wire and The Shield along with many others - and all of these shows make it into the book in some form or other. It's also the era where Simon Cowell first really started to gnaw at the knackers of the music loving public and move towards rinsing them for every penny he could get.
Dawn of the Dumb covers from 2004 to 2007 - the era which brought us the rather uninspiring Sir Alan Sugar (and his significantly more interesting minions),
Brooker's style is punchy, frank, honest, open, straight to the point and most of all not afraid to mince words and call a spade a spade. Sometimes I do envy Brooker's tolerance for absolutely awful television, I've tried to watch it myself at times - because bad television makes for great ranting recaps. But I just don't have the stomach for it, my time is too precious to me to spend it watching stuff which drives me to rage - at least without being paid for it. Not even the perennial turd that is Casualty.
One of the most interesting (and possibly disturbing) things about these two books is how relevant they remain to this day. We're talking about short critical pieces from the last decade and yet nothings really changed in the world of TeeVee - the shit is still as shit as ever, maybe a little worse and the best is so rare it's a delight when you run into it. Everything else tends to land in the middle and pander to lazy viewing habits.
As such these books supply a look back on the past years of television through "not rose" tinted spectacles, but they also remain pertinent to this very day - and I'm not sure if that's brilliant, or completely depressing.
While "Is it Just Me..." is not exclusively about television, it is a quintessentially British book and it during it's full swing of moaning and bile it does indeed take several shots at television. The sections are organised in the old A to Z fashion and if I'm honest they vary a little in quality. Some of the single line entries are hilarious (The Chuckle Brothers one is a single word and still cracks me up), but others miss the point by a large margin.
The television entries naturally cover the "worst" of popular television (which is a subjective point I know) - and go from that old chestnut Big Brother and Casualty to shows like CNN and a particularly brilliant entry on Little Britain, but they also cover topics like "Calamity Porn" looking at shows that cash in on disasters (or potential ones) and items like Interactive media (aka The Push the Red Button trivia quiz!)
It's not as hilarious or even "enlightening" (and I use that term loosely) as either of Brooker's offerings but it's a fun, light read which raises a few interesting points to consider and passes the time well.
There is almost no attempt to disguise what Shouting at the Telly is, it's an unashamed example of the word looking down condescendingly on the picture and then proceeding to rip into television with both venom and fondness. Unlike the previous books this one is a collection of pieces from a variety of individuals grouped roughly into category chapters.
The articles cover subjects from the highly specific - like Alan Dale's career post Neighbours - through tropes like "The Evil Face Hug" (a brilliant piece about a hilarious television device) to broad sweeps about whole genres. My personal favourites - apart from the aforementioned "Evil Face Hug" include the HBO Boxed Set Love - something I suffer from myself, I've almost reached the point where I'll automatically buy anything with HBO's logo on it because I've never been let down by the network. The Doctors Who Weren't - covering a range of actors who almost became Doctor Who but didn't - and the fantastic "My Irrational Hatred of Reality TV Show Contestants" - a piece that sums up why Reality TV is so intoxicating for many.
Shouting at the Telly is a fast paced and entertaining book which is ideal for reading in short bursts, the changes in writing style are quite refreshing and even if you find one writer's piece boring it's no big issue because you know in a few short paragraphs it'll be time for someone else. [Unlike here where I can just drone on and on about The Wire and The Shield until you fossilize.] It's a great coffee table book, unfortunately it isn't about coffee tables.
Finally the other book I would have written about is The Wire: Truth Be Told, a fantastic companion piece to the series. But I wrote about it earlier...