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  • Annie and Alison

Bookshelf: Little Boxes: 12 Writers on Television

Little Boxes: 12 Writers on Television

A quick tip for your TV-related library: find yourself a copy of Coffee House Press's Little Boxes: 12 Writers on Television. It's a collection of essays, written by authors whose influences and referential landscape stem from the formative texts of their lives: TV shows.

The shows covered in this book range from long-running soap Days of Our Lives, to the cult classic Twin Peaks, to 80s orphan sitcom Punky Brewster. Amid the variety, there is a slight theme of time period: all of the shows examined premiered in or before 1998. Most of the writers are about a half-generation older than I am, so their TV influences are accordingly older. This provided a great glimpse at television I have no experience with (such as Punky Brewster or even Dawson's Creek). But it was also some of the most thought-provoking reading I've done in a while, in that each essay literally provoked me into meditations on the shows I would write about, and which shows have had a similar effect on my world.

Elena Passarello's "Naïve Melody," on the importance of music in Northern Exposure, echoed my as-yet-unwritten thoughts on the music of Scrubs. I grew up buying the DVD sets of my beloved Scrubs, but over the years these DVDs have gotten scratched, and the show has been available through streaming services anyway. But the first time I watched a favorite episode through Netflix, the music was immediately, jarringly wrong. I learned that a similar thing has happened to both shows: many songs that originally aired in scenes weren't licensed for streaming or other methods of home viewing, and have been replaced with different songs, and it is the absolute WORST.

V. V. Ganeshananthan's powerful essay on The Cosby Show, "Lovewatch, Hatewatch," looks at what happens when something we loved and trusted seems to transform in the wake of new knowledge. What do we do when the art we consume is associated with something abhorrent?

Ryan Van Meter's "The Hourglass" touts a theory that Al and I have danced around before. He says to his mother, "I think you have to be taught how to watch soap operas." I think he's absolutely right, but I think his theory can go even farther. Of course there are shows that anyone can watch and enjoy without much thought, but there are also shows that require background knowledge, experience, or a certain mindset to embrace and understand the show's world. You have to make a conscious decision to watch Gossip Girl in a different way, say, than you would watch The West Wing, even though both are technically hour-long dramas with moments of comedy. And if you don't know how to switch modes like this, you might not be getting the most out of a show, or receiving it as intended.

Each essay held some nugget of wisdom that also got me thinking about my TV assumptions and influences—obviously a great read for someone who's starting a TV blog, but also good for anyone interested in relatable cultural criticism. Little Boxes invites you to think about the role the small screen has played in your life. So, what would you write about? What shows have impacted you the most?


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