At 75, David Thomson is the sultan of cinema criticism. British-born but long based in America, he is the author of nearly two dozen film-related books including “Moments that Made the Movies,” “’Have You Seen…?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films” and “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”
Now Thomson has switched his gaze, and his analysis, to the TV medium.
In “Television: A Biography” (Thames & Hudson, $34.95), David Thomson focuses on TV from its individual genres to its broad social impact during the past 70 years. As ever, his writing is bright, puckish and reader-friendly.
At 400 pages, the book is a bit weighty, but not the prose.
But what made Thomson, who had never before put his take on TV between covers, decide to change channels? During a recent interview, he explained.
“I was at a point where I felt that the movies were not really going anywhere very exciting, and that if you were looking for the best American movies, you probably needed to look at television. ‘The Wire,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ — they were so much more ambitious than anything made for theaters.
So I began to develop an historical perspective on TV that I had had on the movies for a long time. I’m much more interested now in thinking about and writing about TV than the movies.”
A VIEWER’S BOOK
“You may have watched a lot of TV but never thought systematically about it. I wanted to do a book which would give you a sense that the totality of the medium had been addressed. Not covered, but addressed. And if you have never watched television, after you read this book I think you can say, ‘I understand what television is.””
A DIFFERENT CREATURE
“Our relationship with TV is different than with almost any medium we’ve had before. It’s all well and good for something on TV to be so riveting that you don’t want to miss a moment. But when you tune in to watch one show, you may end up just watching TV overall. There’s such a lot on television that is sort of tidal — it just washes in and out, over you. You turn it on like you would turn on a light, and you may be doing other things. But even if you’re not watching, it enters into you in ambient ways.”
Thomson, film’s consummate list-maker, shared “off the top of my head” a few pick TV hits:
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” … the BBC version of “The Singing Detective” … live coverage of the funeral of President John F. Kennedy … “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” … “a couple of episodes of ‘All in the Family’ where Edith is just sublime” … the ESPN documentary series “O.J.: Made in America,” which he calls “a major work” … and, of course, “Breaking Bad.”
“But this time tomorrow,” he cautions, “I would revise the whole list.”
“With Donald Trump in the White House, I think we’re going to get more of the same as with the campaign: His administration will have to be judged as an ongoing TV show. He is a television person, so I think it’s going to be a presidency of shows and moments. My instinct is, in terms of policy, he’s doing to be dreadfully disappointing to his supporters. But on TV, I think it’s going to be amazing _ until it becomes grotesque.”
“We watch stories and stars, but it’s more and more evident that, as TV viewers, we go where the technology takes us. My sense of television is that technology has always driven the whole thing, and I think that will continue. I think more sophisticated, interesting fusions of what we still call television with the computer are going to occur. That will be more important than any sort of new genre or new narrative form in entertainment. And I see the end of the movie house. But it’s inevitable that a cellphone will be built into our hands. So maybe a screen could be implanted in our heads. I think that will happen!”