Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: A TV Guide to Life

In the past decade or so, a spate of books about popular culture's salubrious effects have come out, simultaneously paying homage to certain figures while also making us feel better about watching so much television. These books, like The Daily Show and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, and Everything Bad is Good for You, challenged the notion that popular culture was paving civilization's road to hell and made the argument that television and movies were actually making us smarter and more thoughtful.

While many of these books are interesting to read, if for no other reason than it is fun to see what twisted, Rube Goldberg-like devices the authors must use to help connect Satre to The Simpsons, I take these books with a shaker of salt. Consequently, I approached Jeff Alexander's A TV Guide to Life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know from Watching Television with some skepticism. Imagine my surprise when I found an often amusing (and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny) look at the plentiful quirks found on television, particularly in scripted TV shows.

The first (and perhaps most important) thing to note about Alexander's book is that the title is a bit misleading. After glancing at the title, I thought that Alexander, a writer for the wonderfully snarky Television Without Pity, was going to try to convince readers that television actually has life-applicable lessons. This is not the book's intention at all; instead, Alexander dissects some of the most familiar tropes found in television, such as the quasi-incestuous relationships that creep up in the workplace (after dozens of failed relationships, why don't the doctors of Seattle Grace on Grey's Anatomy expand the dating pool to outside the hospital?) to the complications that come with having superpowers (characters with superpowers are either noble and tormented or evil). Along the way, he takes the time to point out some glaring absurdities that populate some of television's biggest hits (why do people hang out with Jack McFarland on Will & Grace and Phoebe Buffay on Friends? How do the four women on Sex and the City manage to consistently find time to get together?).

As he skewers one television-derived lesson after another, it is obvious that Alexander knows what he is talking about. In his analysis, he references popular current and past shows, and a passing familiarity with the shows certainly helps in completely understanding what he is mocking. However, many of these shows are so well-known that even a casual observer will be able to get his references. The book's organization of having separate chapters dealing with an overall theme (such as TV and friendship) is very effective in that it allows readers to skip around without any problem.

If you are looking for a serious discussion on what television has to offer in terms of useful knowledge, you will want to read another book. However, if you are looking for a humorous, somewhat irreverent look at television, Alexander's book is for you. It may even convince you to take some time away from the TV and curl up with a book.