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Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture


"Genre and Television" by Jason Mittell is a scholarly but accessable study of television and American culture. Mr. Mittel demonstrates how genres function as cultural categories by stressing the interplay of historical processes, industrial practices, audience discources, text, genre mixing and parody. Interestingly, Mr. Mittel draws on the work of Michel Foucault to discuss how genres are crucial in developing and maintaining audience discourses where definitions, interpretations and evaluations may be challenged and revised over time. Mr. Mittell's mix of interesting and entertaining case studies combined with sophisticated analyses makes for fascinating reading and will no doubt prove to be a highly influential work within the media studies field.

Mr. Mittell presents a historiography of the quiz show to demonstrate how public policy decisions can shape genres. The radio origins of the quiz show provided a model of how the genre would be presented on television in the mid-1950s, with expectations of monetary awards, honest competition, a question and answer format, educational content and positive social value. As the reality of lotteries and scripting were discovered, the FCC strong-armed the industry into producing shows that conformed to what it perceived to be the mass audience' preferences and expectations.

Cartoons are discussed to illustrate the lasting impact that industrial practices can exert on genres. We learn how cartoons produced by Hollywood film studios for general theater audiences were re-broadcast on television for consumption by children in the Saturday morning timeslot. The short-lived success of Hanna-Barbera's primetime productions such as the 1960s series "The Flintstones" reinforced a growing consensus that cartoons could not be successfully targeted to adults, a view that persisted for decades. However, the author heaps generous praise on Cartoon Network and the cable industry with reinvigorating the genre by successfully cultivating a mass audience of cartoon lovers through the use of shrewd branding characterized by irony, nostalgia and art.

The oft-maligned talk show genre was the subject of a survey conducted by the author that attempted to elicit how audience discourses of taste and identity are shaped beyond the viewing experience. Although the survey sample was much too small to be validated scientifically, the answers to the open-ended questions confirmed the author's contention that the "cultural circulation" of genres is important, as viewers and non-viewers frequently reported that they evaluate talk show genres and sub-genres in discussions held with others away from the television set.

The importance of reading texts in their historical and social context is illustrated by the 1950s classic "Dragnet", whose suggested authenticity combined with innovative production techniques heavily influenced the police show genre. However, the dualistic worldview of "Dragnet" was disastrously revived in 1967 to changing cultural values that reduced the ideologically-rigid program to self-parody. The author explains how the more successful precedents that were filmed in the 1970s such as "Starsky & Hutch" recalled some of the production values of "Dragnet" but increasingly celebrated the "rogue hero" who could navigate the ambiguous moral ground that might exist between the extremes of criminal chaos and a repressive state bureaucracy.

Mr. Mittell contends that genre mixing and parody are often employed to heighten cultural assumptions about genre. Parodies such as the 1970s TV series "Soap" successfully mixed daytime dramas with comedy but confounded audience expectations about each of these genres, which explains why the program was so contentious at the time. Likewise, "The Simpsons'" blending of cartoon comedy with family sitcom has stirred controversy over the appropriateness of adult-oriented content in a format that has been traditionally associated with young children.

I highly recommend this extraordinary book to demanding readers who may be interested in an uniquely intelligent analysis of television and American culture.

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Tags: television, genre, audience, cultural, genres