Watch what you read: 19 essential books about TV

Watch what you read: 19 essential books about TV

Illustration: Nick Wanserski
Illustration: Nick Wanserski

Among its 100-plus lists, the 2009 Inventory book (now available for the low, low price of a penny!) contains “TV Guides: 5 essential books about TV.” The books it highlights—The Late Shift by Bill Carter, Live From New York by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, Total Television by Alex McNeil, The Glass Teat by Harlan Ellison, and The Simpsons: A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family—are undisputed classics of the genre, but they’re not the only worthwhile small-screen reads. TV has been celebrated and decried in print since its inception; the medium’s ongoing Golden Age has fostered an audience eager to read about its favorite shows after the credits roll—and a cohort of critics, authors, and scholars prepared to satisfy that appetite. That means there might be more vital books about TV on the shelves by the end of 2016—until then, try supplementing The A.V. Club’s previous TV reading list with the 19 titles that follow.

1. The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network And Cable TV Shows 1946-Present by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh (1979)

The first edition of the definitive TV reference book was a massive undertaking, indexing every show that aired at least four episodes during peak viewing hours on NBC, CBS, ABC, or DuMont. Kermit The Frog, Miss Piggy, and Sea Hunt-era Lloyd Bridges signaled the addition of popular syndicated programs to the book’s second edition; cable was added to the listings (and the book’s title) for the sixth. The efforts of network research execs Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh only grew more intensive from there, with every “REVISED AND UPDATED” volume of The Complete Directory reflecting shifting TV trends and climates, all helpfully condensed in Brooks’ continuously evolving introduction, “A Short History Of Network Television.” Looking back on the ’90s in the seventh edition, Brooks calls the decade “the first time viewers have a real choice, all the time,” unaware of the the bounty of options waiting on the other side of the streaming revolution. Sadly, we might never get to read a readily digestible summary of Orange Is The New Black from Brooks and Marsh: The books’ ninth edition, published in 2007, is reportedly its last. [Erik Adams]

2. Tube Of Plenty by Erik Barnouw (1975)

Just about anybody who’s ever taken a college class on broadcasting history has read some or all of Erik Barnouw’s Tube Of Plenty, a highly entertaining yet impressively wide-ranging survey of how television evolved from radio (and then changed again with the rise of cable, which is covered in subsequent editions). Jumping from hard facts to lighthearted anecdotes—grouped into short sections that make the book browsable—Tube Of Plenty is like the ideal version of a textbook, at once informative and absorbing. It also benefits from the author’s distinctive slant. A writer who worked in the industry before he moved into academia, Barnouw has a definite point-of-view about the politics of show business, and the ongoing struggle of ordinary Americans to gain access to the airwaves. [Noel Murray]

3. TV: The Most Popular Art by Horace Newcomb (1974)

Horace Newcomb was a college professor who moonlighted as The Baltimore Sun’s television columnist, which explains the singular style of his groundbreaking book TV: The Most Popular Art, a piece of long-form criticism that welds academic rigor and insight to an enthusiast’s expertise. In addition to defining the elements of TV genres—beyond just “Westerns have horses”—Newcomb explores the deeper meaning of different formulas, considering how they both confirm or subvert the television audience’s preexisting prejudices. Though the book sometimes dings the medium’s insidious cultural influence, it also represents the voice of somebody who clearly appreciates artistry. It’s no wonder that Newcomb would go on to chair the Peabody Awards for nearly a dozen years. [Noel Murray]

4. The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall (2012)

As one of the best and best-known television critics of this era, Alan Sepinwall has been an influence on nearly everyone who finishes watching a weekly prestige drama and then scrambles to post their thoughts online. The Revolution Was Televised crystallizes Sepinwall’s ideas and observations about a dozen series that changed what TV could be in the 1990s and 2000s—from the usual suspects like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men to cult favorites like Oz, Deadwood, and The Shield. Making great use of the relationships he’s built up with writers and producers during 20 years on the job, Sepinwall gets the likes of Damon Lindelof, Vince Gilligan, and the three Davids (Chase, Simon, and Milch) to go on the record about how they elevated the medium, and gave TV addicts everywhere something to obsess over. [Noel Murray]

5. Desperate Networks by Bill Carter (2006)

Carter is probably best-known for The Late Shift, his remarkably raw behind-the-scenes look at how Jay Leno beat out David Letterman for Johnny Carson’s job. But today’s TV-watchers will likely get a lot more out of Desperate Networks, Carter’s dive into the changing fortunes of mainstream broadcasters at the turn of the millennium. As the once-unbeatable NBC clung to aging hits like Friends and ER rather than innovating, the scrappier ABC rose quickly thanks to Lost and Desperate Housewives, while Fox and CBS practically stumbled into success with the reality phenomenons American Idol and Survivor and the pumped-up genre exercises 24 and CSI. Carter had inside access to a lot of the people making the decisions—and the mistakes—while all those shows were debuting. Jumping off from those examples, he lays out how TV started down the road to where it is now, with the quality stronger than ever, but the audience dwindling. [Noel Murray]

6. The Box: An Oral History Of Television 1920-1961 by Jeff Kisseloff (1995)

There are approximately five or six movies to be ripped from the pages of The Box, the exhaustive account of TV’s infancy assembled by writer and oral historian Jeff Kisseloff. Or, more fittingly, dozens of TV scripts: The pages of The Box positively crackle with the recollections of those who witnessed TV’s growth from mechanical curiosity to mass-communication marvel. From the laboratories of Philo T. Farnsworth to the hallowed halls of 30 Rockefeller Center, Kisseloff’s subjects were there, and with the benefit of hindsight and no concessions to professional courtesy, they speak freely (and frequently profanely) about this exciting, experimental period in the medium’s development. Most of what they created has either been consigned to the junk heap or lost in the ether, but The Box lets these inveterate tinkerers and unassuming mavericks preserve their televised legacy as they remembered it decades later. [Erik Adams]

7. Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians Of The 1950s And 1960s by Gerald Nachman (2003)

Technically, Nachman’s Seriously Funny is a collection of comprehensive profiles of stand-up comics, and not a book about television per se. But a good two-thirds of the chapters (like the ones about Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, the Smothers Brothers, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Nichols & May, Bob & Ray, Godfrey Cambridge, and Joan Rivers) double as a mini-history of comedy on TV during the medium’s first two decades. A new comic sensibility emerged in the Eisenhower era—more dryly sarcastic and self-aware—and the proliferation of those voices on the tube helped set the stage for the 1960s counterculture. Nachman explains how that happened, via astute, knowing analysis that includes a lot of information about how television adjusted to the new wave of wise-asses. [Noel Murray]

8. How To Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (2013)

While the proliferation of online reviews exposes more viewers to close readings of their favorite TV shows, it also puts reviewers in closer contact with their counterparts in academia. The intersection of TV scholarship and criticism is on full display in How To Watch Television, a collection of 40 essays on 40 different shows spanning a wide range of genre, formats, time, prestige, and even distribution models. (Among those essays: An expanded version of Noel Murray’s A Very Special Episode column covering M*A*S*H’s “The Interview.”) Taking One Life To Live and Jersey Shore as seriously as Homicide: Life On The Street or NYPD Blue, How To Watch Television makes a case for television’s rich bounty in language that’s academic, yet accessible to readers not currently studying for a degree. To take its cheeky title at face value, How To Watch Television is an introduction to the endless methods for engaging with and interpreting the shows we watch week in and week out, both on and off the device that gives the medium its name. [Erik Adams]

9. Televi$ion: The Business Behind The Box by Les Brown (1971)

Written during the heyday of “The New Journalism,” this comprehensive look at the state of the medium circa 1970 was written by a Variety reporter who spent an entire year embedded with the major networks’ executives and businessmen. Les Brown breaks down programming strategies, ratings wars, and demographic research, and reveals how small-market affiliates drive the big-city suits nuts. The author had the good fortune to research this book when escapist fare was starting to give way to more serious shows like All In The Family, which means Televi$ion captures a dynamic time in the business. But the issues that kept producers awake back in 1970 haven’t changed that much. [Noel Murray]

10. Classic Sitcoms by Vince Waldron (1987)

Online resources have more or less supplanted the type of episode-by-episode breakdowns that comprise the bulk of this “celebration of the best in primetime comedy”—a truth illustrated when those pages eventually made their way to the internet. But while the curious, the trivia hound, and the in-need-of-a-reminder can scratch their respective itches with a simple “Ctrl-F,” they still need a physical copy of Classic Sitcom to access anecdotes like the editing-room epiphany that led Norman Lear to All In The Family or this script-writing chestnut from Cheers co-creator Les Charles that’s as true today as it was in 1982: “It’s much easier to write when you put all your characters in one room. Anytime you need a joke, you’ve got somewhere there who can do it.” Above all, what Classic Sitcoms has over the internet’s infinite pages is curation: Its subjects are the 10 best sitcoms of commercial television’s first four decades—including All In The Family and Cheers, plus I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, Barney Miller, and Taxi—as determined by a survey of TV critics. Now someone just needs to write a spiritual sequel covering Seinfeld, The Simpsons, and beyond. [Erik Adams]

11. The Encyclopedia Of TV Game Shows by David Schwartz, Steve Ryan, and Fred Wostbrock (1999)

There’s not a lot to the entries in this reference book: just brief descriptions, plus lists of dates and key personnel and the odd bit of trivia. But for game show geeks, The Encyclopedia Of TV Game Shows is a must. When it’s not confirming that yes, there really did used to be a show where contestants competed to operate a giant pinball machine (that would be The Magnificent Marble Machine), the book points to short-lived, barely remembered games like the Nipsey Russell-hosted Your Number’s Up. Plus, it has plenty of pictures—which is perfect for anyone who wants to see a publicity still of David Letterman flanked by Betty White and Larry Storch on The Liar’s Club. [Noel Murray]

12. I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks (2011)

Music journalists Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks compiled this 2011 testament to a bygone age, when the “M” in MTV stood for “Music,” not “Miscellaneous.” Over 400 artists, music industry insiders, and VJs were interviewed to provide an oral history of the music video channel from its inception in 1981 to the foray into The Real World that marked a shift in programming and, consequently, the end of an era. The informative tome (weighing in at approximately 600 pages) charts the medium’s rise in popularity as well as quality, which eventually yielded such memorable productions as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain.” It’s chock full of amusing anecdotes about influential performers’ first impressions of MTV, but what’s far more interesting is the look back at the culture war between the record-industry establishment (which included critics) and the video upstarts. [Danette Chavez]

13. Season Finale by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton (2009)

The WB and UPN form one of the most fascinating footnotes in television history. These were networks where “a new television show was in the works” at any given time, responsible for some truly awful programming, where Homeboys In Outer Space and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer were only the tip of the batshit iceberg. Yet they were also the networks that allowed Buffy The Vampire Slayer to become a cultural milestone, created such beloved series as Gilmore Girls, Felicity, and Dawson’s Creek, and who managed to survive for years at a point where the major networks still had a stranglehold on viewing habits. Season Finale, written by WB executive Susanne Daniels and Variety writer Cynthia Littleton, straddles both sides of the equation, getting into the process of how the networks developed these successes and how their failures managed to get on the air in the first place. (The eccentricities of UPN president Dean Valentine had something to do with it.) It’s an interesting look at the network television process, appealing to fans of both TV business logic and shows that couldn’t have gotten on the air anywhere else. [Les Chappell]

14-15. The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (1982)/The Outer Limits: The Official Companion by David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen (1986)

The gold standard of fan-friendly episode guides, these two books offer comprehensive recaps and ample behind-the-scenes material, sprinkled with a little bit of critical analysis. Taking advantage of the huge cult followings for The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits—built via the obsessive watching and re-watching of syndicated repeats—Marc Scott Zicree, David J. Schow, and Jeffrey Frentzen proved that there was a market for smart, nerdy writing about television. Without meaning to, they paved the way for today’s internet fan sites and weekly episodic TV reviews. But very little online material is as thoroughly researched as the write-ups in these Companions. [Noel Murray]

16. Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (2013)

Just like its main character, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had spunk, overcoming the initial misgivings of CBS executives to become one of the biggest hits of the 1970s and a multi-camera trendsetter for decades afterward. That sense of spunk—or “pluck” or “moxie” or whatever other term Lou Grant might object to—infuses the narrative of Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Mary And Lou And Rhoda And Ted, which finds a through-line in the cast and crew’s determination to beat the odds, whether it was the eponymous star bouncing back from a Broadway flop (and helping to establish a powerhouse TV studio along the way) or writer Treva Silverman breaking into a male-dominated field to work on a show that wound up making headway for future generations of female TV scribes. Looking at the Mary Tyler Moore phenomenon from within and without, author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (whose work has also appeared on The A.V. Club) takes an interest in superfan Joe Rainone, who struck up an unlikely correspondence with the show’s staff by mailing them scene-by-scene analysis of every new episode. Thanks to Armstrong’s diligence, we now know that The Mary Tyler Moore Show is responsible for resurrecting Moore’s career, revolutionizing the sitcom, and setting the pace for dozens of Joe Rainones on the internet. [Erik Adams]

17. Street Gang: The Complete History Of Sesame Street by Michael Davis (2008)

Sesame Street was brought to you by an intense period of research projects, focus groups, and heated seminars, all of which made the show the most meticulously documented in television history before a single episode had even aired. So it was no small feat for journalist Michael Davis to synthesize all of that information—while supplementing it with his own original reporting—into a historical account as accessible, illuminating, and entertaining as Street Gang. The book has two equally compelling main characters in Joan Cooney (one of Sesame Street’s creators and a founder of the non-profit organization that produces the show, Sesame Workshop) and Jim Henson (whose Muppets found in Sesame Street the regular TV spot their creator sought for years), but its pages also devote significant attention to the not-quite-household names that make Sesame Street one of the premier collaborative efforts of the 20th century’s premier collaborative art form. While relating the show’s development alongside a primer on public broadcasting in the U.S., Davis profiles key behind-the-scenes figures like Cooney’s fellow Workshop architect Lloyd Morrisett, director Jon Stone, and composers Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss, a portrayal of Sesame Street that brings to mind one of Moss’ catchiest compositions: These are the people who built the neighborhood, people whose creations and contributions you can still meet each day. [Erik Adams]

18. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide by Trace Beaulieu, Paul Chapin, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy, Michael J. Nelson, and Mary Jo Pehl (1996)

The original Mystery Science Theater 3000 had such a distinct voice, the only people qualified to tell its story are the people responsible for that voice. Littered with inside jokes, intra-office ribbing, and all manner of pop-culture arcana, Amazing Colossal Episode Guide chronicles the first seven years of MST3K’s rise from public-access obscurity to basic-cable semi-obscurity, wrapped around a comprehensive catalogue of the series’ Comedy Channel/Comedy Central episodes. The wit of the show’s densely packed riffs comes through in book form—Mary Jo Pehl on the infamous music-appreciation short, “Mr. B. Natural”: “In which a shrill, peculiar succubus visits a young boy to teach him about the spirt of music. Ick.”—but Amazing Colossal Episode Guide is equally valuable as a direct dispatch from cable’s experimental adolescence. There was money to be made and zeitgeists to seize on the other side of Amazing Colossal Episode Guide’s publication—the end of MST3K’s Comedy Central run came roughly a year before South Park’s premiere—but these pages show how one cowtown puppet show laid the path to higher ratings and bigger cults, one bad movie at a time. [Erik Adams]

19. Down The Tube by Terry Galanoy (1970)

This quasi-exposé of manipulative advertising was written by a former ad-man and TV producer with axes aplenty to grind; and while it’s over 45 years old, very little about it has ceased to be relevant. As Terry Galanoy breaks down the psychological techniques that salesman have used for centuries, he argues that advertising should be more strictly regulated, and suggests that all the visual fakery and half-truths that advertisers use to pitch sugary cereals could just as easily be directed toward something that would actually benefit the public. Though long out of print, Down The Tube is easy to find, and endlessly fascinating, both as a snapshot of its time and a consideration of how hucksterism never changes. [Noel Murray]