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Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock (eds), Television Aesthetics and Style.

Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock (eds), Television Aesthetics and Style. Bloomsbury, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4411-7992-0

Questions of aesthetics and value in television have long been contentious. In respect of screen media, television has historically been seen as the poor relation of film, lacking in aesthetic potential. In terms of cultural value, moreover, the medium of television is habitually denigrated as 'a throwaway medium' (p. 9) having little of worth to offer. When, on occasion, advocates of quality television have made a case for specific programmes (notably drama), they have frequently been dismissed in some quarters as 'elitist'. Indeed, in spite of several recent exhortations by key figures in the field (Bignell, Cardwell, Jacobs, Mittell, Peacock) (1) for scholars to address style and value in television, 'a gap in scholarship' (p. 2) has largely remained. It is refreshing, therefore, to have a book which unashamedly asserts that television is capable of both 'aesthetics and style'. The book advocates for 'a critical community' of scholars thinking about 'television aesthetics and style more closely' (p. 11).

The well-turned Introduction marks the history and sketches the case with apt illustrations of both surprising effacements of aesthetic considerations within current literature, and the potential in feeling through 'the tensions and complexities [of] keeping them in play' (p. 2). Recent advances in technologies and shifts in the television industry have evidently yielded texts of visual and aural richness. Writing of television 'moments', equivalent to those referred to in characteristic discourses on film, Jacobs and Peacock note that multiple viewing platforms afford repeat access, encouraging 'the breakdown and appraisal of television fictions into fragments' (p. 7). Such a cultural shift encourages at once a playfulness in textual engagement and a luxuriating in what I call 'moments of affect'. The book accordingly invites scholars to pay more detailed attention to what is at stake in television events.

Though it recognises a distinction between style and evaluation, and openly invites a range of voices to the debate (eschewing the universal spectator of earlier film studies) the book aligns itself in the wake of earlier evaluative critical traditions (Leavis, Richards, Cavell, Gibbs and Pye). (2) However, it accepts, under relativist circumstances, that advocates of a particular programme can do no more than make the case through persuasion in terms of detailed analysis of text in the context of the medium. Accordingly, Parts Two, Three and Four of the book respectively illustrate the aesthetics and styles of television comedy, drama and non-fiction and history. However, it is Part One, following the Introduction, which directly addresses key conceptual debates.

In a nuanced and measured essay, Sarah Cardwell takes on the 'aesthetic sceptics' (p. 24) and colours in the sketch of the new project of 'television aesthetics', distinguishing it from formalism. Indeed, to this end, she helpfully locates it in the lineage of debates in philosophical aesthetics. Through analysis of a range of conceptual frameworks on art and aesthetics, she demonstrates that a common thread marks the activity of adopting an aesthetic disposition at least as much as formal textual organisation. Cardwell thus demonstrates that aesthetic engagements with television when properly understood are processual, not pre-structuralist.

Jason Mittell agrees with Cardwell that '[e]valuative criticism can strengthen our understanding of how a television programme works' (p. 45). He demonstrates what is at stake through an engaging analysis of The Wire and Breaking Bad in this context, distinguishing the two in terms of 'centrifugal' and 'centripetal complexity' (p. 52). Brett Mills unpacks the over-used, and often unexplained, ascription of the term 'cinematic' particularly to American TV series of the past decade. In the context of a book about television aesthetics, he astutely probes the implications of an implicit valorisation of film at the expense of television, which possibly reasserts 'a hierarchy that sees television as film's poor relation' (p. 84). In concluding Part One, Deborah Jaramillo affirms the 'perils of dismissing television style' (p. 67).

The balance of the book ranges widely over different aspects of television. In the Introduction, the editors acknowledge their surprise at the 'preponderance of proposals on television comedy' (p. 15). The three chapters in Part Three, however, demonstrate not only that comedy programmes also have aesthetic dimensions but that they are worthy of close analysis of the kind advocated. Part Four on television drama flirts with the danger of reasserting television as film's 'Other', since several contributors make repeated reference to films and film history in seemingly arguing for a television aesthetic. This is the case in William Rothman's 'Justifying Justified', and Janet McCabe, in her essay on Boardwalk Empire, writes of Scorsese having 'reimagined and translated anew for television' (p. 193), though it is not fully clear what this entails. In addressing sound in The O.C., Faye Woods does observe that 'the narrative space of a multi-season television text allows for a televisually-specific form of popular music leitmotif (p. 204), and Lucy Fife Donaldson identifies a distinctive TV experience. Beth Johnson's analysis of Shameless recognises its intertextual relations with other TV dramas but, in marking a TV fantasy dimension, her reference point is Spielberg. The most concentrated essay in this section affording a detailed--almost moment by moment--study of engagement with television (an episode of Mad Men) is by George Toles, ironically a practitioner-scholar best known for work on cinema.

It is reassuring then that Part Four on 'Non-Fiction and History', which also features some eminent film scholars, is more closely focused on television. Charles Barr echoes Toles's detailed relation of the experience of watching television in which there are 'passages of live duration ... inconceivable in cinema' (p. 242). Despite the coming together of film and television noted elsewhere in the book, Barr argues that 'the gap between the aesthetics of the two media' (p. 243) may narrow but never closes. Frances Bonner and Linus Andersson open up almost diametrically opposed aspects of debate, the former's contribution marking a television aesthetic of 'cheerful vulgarity' in reality dance talent shows whilst the latter explores the 'television sublime' with reference to a Lithuanian avant-garde TV experiment. The final three chapters respectively examine the zoom shot, montage sound-tape editing and FUIs (user interfaces) to remind the reader that technologies change significantly over time and have a significant bearing on TV aesthetics.

Following the focused and powerfully-argued first section, it was something of a surprise to find the book ranging so wildly that I was left wondering about the difference between techne, principles of composition and the aesthetics of television. But overall the book is successful in bringing into vision an important debate about the distinction of the television medium in all its multi-faceted dimensions, and reminding the reader that cinema should perhaps not be the only comparative reference-point when exploring television aesthetics.


(1) See for instance Jonathan Bignell, The Police Series in Close-Up 03 series, John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds), Wallflower Press, 2009; Sarah Cardwell 'Is quality television any good? Generic distinctions, evaluations and the troubling matter of critical judgement' in Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (eds), Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, I.B. Tauris 2007; Jason Jacobs 'Issues of Judgement and value in television studies', International Journal of Cultural Studies, 4:4, 2001, 427-47; Jason Mittell, 'Lost in a Great Story: Evaluation in Narrative Television (and Television Studies)' in Roberta Pearson (ed.), Reading Lost, I.B. Tauris 2009; Sarah Cardwell and Steven Peacock (eds), 'Good Television' issue, Journal of British Cinema and Television, 3:1, Spring 2006.

(2) F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition, Pelican 1972 (1948); I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement, Transaction Publishers 2008 (1929); Stanley Cavell, The Pursuits of Happiness, Harvard Film Studies 1981; John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds), Style and Meaning; Studies in the Detailed Analysis of Film, Manchester University Press, 2005.

Robin Nelson

University of London (Royal Central School)
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Author:Nelson, Robin
Publication:Critical Studies in Television
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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