Come and Have a Go, If You Think You’re Clever Enough

Television criticism, maybe even more so than other forms of arts criticism, has an implicit but rigid hierarchy. “Often, these biases involve class, gender, race, and sexuality, disguised as biases about aesthetics,” Emily Nussbaum writes in her book I Like to Watch: “Green/grey drama, serious; neon-pink musical, guilty pleasure. Single-cam sitcom, upscale; multi-cam, working class.” Nussbaum attributes this, in part, to television’s status anxiety: it wasn’t too long ago that TV was considered the idiot box, the boob tube, a vast wasteland. “So much of TV,” John Mason Brown told Steven H. Scheur in 1955, “seems to be chewing gum for the eyes.” For the rest of the twentieth century, at least, most people would agree with him. And so critics appeal all too readily to other, more respectable mediums – it’s a visual novel, a ten-hour movie. It’s not TV, it’s HBO.

I agree totally with Nussbaum’s argument, and have made versions of it myself over the years. But the privileging of drama over sitcoms, of gritty realism over silly genre fare, of masculinity over femininity, is a relatively small part of the equation. The types of television most neglected by critics are, if we’re honest, the same ones that make up most of the TV made and most of the TV watched: all the vast, vast area that exists outside of scripted comedy and drama programmes.

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