Television’s Detractors Go to the Movies: Cinematic Representations of Television

While Chapter 1 examined how television shows are exhibited at movie theaters, television as a medium is also regularly exhibited at the movies, through being the subject of many films. Hollywood has long loved making films about films and filmmaking, and though films about television and the making of television are less numerous, television still appears as star or (as we’ll see) villain, and as topic of analysis, critique, and consternation in multiple films. Each of these films about television could individually warrant attention, to see what they’re saying about the medium, and what discursive work they’re doing to distinguish television from movies. But rather than turn to one or two sustained examples at the risk of probing only them, this chapter examines a swathe of such films, looking for patterns, echoes, and repeated statements or suggestions across them. Rather than ask simply what does this or that film and its creative team think about television, therefore, our interest is in what discursive work film does in general to frame what television is or isn’t. What do we learn about television from cinematic representations of the medium?

An inspiration for this chapter comes from Lynn Spigel’s superb examination of how television was marketed and domesticated in its early years, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Spigel examines ads and articles in women’s magazines between 1948 and 1955 to document their “installation into domestic space” (1992, 1) of television. What, she asks, did people expect of television in its early years in the United States, and from where might some of these expectations have come? Using women’s magazines of the era, she notes a determined, repeated attempt to situate the television set as a central new member of the family, through pictorial representation of families happily congregating in front of the television, and through articles that reported on research into television’s new roles in the family circle.

She illustrates, too, that these efforts to place television pitched heavily to women, addressing them as housewives, and nominating their special role in integrating television into their domestic labor routines and their families’ lives. If television came to exist in many people’s imaginaries as a medium of and for housewives, in short, Spigel shows how these imaginaries didn’t simply develop naturally—they were very purposively constructed by women’s magazines and their advertisers.

If advertisers can play the game of discursively constructing television, though, so too can other prominent speakers. With direct relevance to our interests here, in his book The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet (2006), Paul Young studies how film discussed, framed, and “fantasized” various media that were innovated following its own arrival on the popular cultural scene. In a chapter on films fantasizing television, he considers numerous films—including Murder by Television (1935), Double Indemnity (1944), White Heat (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Glass Web (1953), and A Face in the Crowd (1957)—and their variously overt and metaphorical envisionings of and commentary upon television. While recognizing the peculiar threat television may have posed to some degree to film, being not only another audio-visual medium, but one that broadcast to the home for free, Young ultimately sees film’s fantasies invested less in rivalry and more in policing a very specific notion of classical film style and address. As Spigel notes of the ads that encircled television’s early days, Young also sees the films as “constructing television as a technological-institutional nexus of domesticity” (2006, 140) while fantasizing film as a bolder, grander form of public address. To do so, though, involved “constantly” exuding suspicion about television and its audiences (xviii).

Jon Nelson Wagner and Tracey Biga MacLean then update the story of film’s treatment of television as subject in Television at the Movies (2008). From the 1970s’ The Last Picture Show (1971)—which they write of as an elegy to cinema which “ultimately sees, as high cinema often does, the arrival of television and the usurpation of film as the end of the world” (23)—to the 1990s’ The Cable Guy (1996)—which focuses, they suggest, on a titular character whose masculinity has been “deranged” by television (106)—they also offer longer analyses of Videodrome (1983), Being There (1979), Max Headroom (1985), My Favorite Year (1982), Tootsie (1982), Network (1976), Buhvorth (1998), Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), and The King of Comedy (1982), while discussing many more films in passing. Asking what cinema says about television, they argue at the outset, is made permissible by how often cinema treats television as a “monolithic presence” (1). And that presence, they document, is inevitably threatening in one way or another: “To say that cinema often presents a contemptuous view of television doesn’t begin to capture the extremity of that representation” (25). All frame television as “bad,” where what is meant by bad “is multiple, shifting, and unspecific” (14). As “a carrier of pathology, brainwashing behavior, or creative enervation” (11) to some, forever tinged by a “sense of pollution” (25), television on film continually upsets societal institutions and comforts in worrying ways, charged with being commodified, commercialized, and capitalist to a tee, of pitching to audiences’ basest desires in ways that drag those desires ever lower, of attracting the worst, most self-centered and unhinged talent, and of being a feminizing influence, where feminizing is regarded pejoratively and dangerously.

In this chapter, we cover the next two decades of this story, asking about television on film in the 2000s and 2010s. This was a time, we repeat from our Introduction, when every major studio shared a corporate umbrella with a major producer and distributor of television, when transmedia franchising provided ample reasons to work together, when long-held criticisms of television’s relative weakness as narrative form were regularly being challenged by successive waves of programming that commanded critical adoration, and when creative personnel were moving between media as rarely before. Thus one might expect a détente and a thawing of the relations somewhat. Of course, just as Spigel never suggested that only women’s magazines and their advertisers constructed television’s early character in the United States, or just as Young never suggests that only film fantasizes television, in turning to film we similarly don’t mean to suggest it is the first or only speaker. Others might also ask how politicians and their speeches frame any medium and its possibilities, how any given medium frames itself, how religious, educational, or other institutions ask for us to engage (or not) with a medium. Film by no means has the first or last word. But what do films of the post-merger 2000s and 2010s say about television, and what is film’s current framing of television?

To answer these questions, we watched films about television released since 2000, although when some films released earlier than 2000 have enjoyed continued popularity and notoriety into the 2000s, we considered them too. We scoured lists on the Internet, from Wikipedia to fan-made lists on IMDb and other film list sites, to create a master list of films about television (or in which television features prominently), and then started watching many of them. We limited ourselves to English-language and mostly American films, and thus our results may say little about television’s framing outside of the United States, even though the international distribution of many of these films likely ensured a fair degree of global travel. That list included:

15 Minutes (2001)

Network (1976)

Nightcrawler (2014) Pleasantville (1998) Poltergeist (1982) Quiz Show (1994) The Ring (2002)

The Show (2017)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

Bewitched (2005)

Broadcast News (1987)

The Cable Guy (1996)

Cinema Verite (2011)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Showtime (2002)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Terror Toons (2002)

The Truman Show (1998)

Truth (2015)

The TV Set (2006)

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

1%? the Dog (1997)

Welcome to Me (2014)

Death to Smoochy (2002)

Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star (2003)


Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Insider (1999)

Jingles the Clown (2009)

Little Black Book (2004)

Morning Glory (2010)

Originally, we had intended to write about the other direction of messaging and boundary maintenance too, asking what television says about movies. However, we soon noted a significant relative dearth of material to study. Numerous television shows have sought to satirize or play around with Hollywood more generally, whether in the forefront or background—including Barry (2018-), Better Things (2016—), Bojack Horseman (2014-2020), Californica-tion (2008-2014), Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-2020), Entourage (2004-2011), Episodes (2011-2017), and Extras (2005-2007)—and we watched many of these (and others) too. But we were struck by how often television treats “the industry” as one involving the integration of film and television (and sometimes theater). The actors, directors, writers, and executives we meet in such shows may be working on a television show at this point, a film at that point, and while they are engaged in that project the text’s commentary may seem to be directed at that medium, but that commentary soon repeats itself in relation to work in the other medium, such that the object of commentary (and often scorn) is “show business” writ large, not a specific medium. Bojack Horseman, for instance, hardly reserves particular satire for movies alone. Some other shows are more specifically about television (such as 30 Rock [2006—2013], Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip [2006-2007], The Larry Sanders Show [1992-1998], or UnREAL [2015-2018]), but television shows about films have nearly always been about television too. This in itself works in stark contrast to many of the films that quite carefully direct their commentary toward film or television specifically. Even when “Hollywood” is invoked in film, it is far more often the movie industry, with television perhaps positioned to pick up the leftovers from failed careers, (framed-as) awful remakes or transmedia continuations, and greedy producers, but with little sense that the industries are one. By contrast, scant few television shows have distinct commentary on the movie industry, certainly not enough to justify any extended examination of “patterns.”

Nevertheless, we not only watched significant portions of the above-listed shows, but we also sought a “control group” of sorts, and thus watched numerous movies about movies. Even if, as noted above, films about television are notable in comparison to television shows about film and television inasmuch as the former envision two separate entities while the latter tend to envision a single industry, we wanted to see if films about films echoed similar critiques, or whether, in total, they suggested a different character to television as medium and industry. As we’ll discuss, we very much saw the latter, as films about films may run the gamut from biting critique to loving embrace, but what they see as variously heinous or lovable differs significantly from what films about television tell us about television. Movie-makers have long adored looking in the mirror and making films about films, so we could not feasibly watch all such films. However, for a recent sample, we again worked off numerous lists to watch the following, with acknowledgment this is an incomplete list, intended more to sample than to audit:

Argo (2012)

The Aviator (2004)

Be Kind, Rewind (2008)

Boogie Nights (1997)

A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

The Deal (2008)

Hitchcock (2012)

Hollywood Ending (2002)

Hugo (2011)

The Independent (2000)

Judas Kiss (2011)

The Kid and I (2005)

Knight of Cups (2015)

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (2004)

A'fy Week with Marilyn (2011)

The Player (1992)

The Road to Nowhere (2010)

Rules Don’t Apply (2016)

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

State and Main (2000)

Super 8 (2011)

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (2012)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Walt Before Mickey (2015)

The watching and interpreting “we” in this chapter includes Jennifer Smith, who worked as a research assistant for this part of the project across two years. Derek and Jonathan had seen a healthy handful of the films listed, and especially much of the television noted above, but Jennifer cast a much wider net, returning from bouts of watching with superb notes and observations that guided much of our analysis.

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