Not Remotely Controlled
Notes on Television
Basic Books, $15.95, 304 pp.
A television review has the shelf life of a popsicle in August: its value is in the moment. A TV program that proves to be a failure will vanish from public consciousness, carrying the commentator’s observations with it. A show that succeeds will insinuate itself into the culture and become a fact of life, as critic-proof as gravity, or the Pacific Ocean. Shock over the finale to The Sopranos reverberated for weeks through the press, but who remembers, or cares about, any pundit’s reaction to the pilot episode, back in 1999?
Still, no ambitious critic likes to think of his or her work as a glorified ratings system for consumers who are deciding how to spend a buck or an hour. There’s far more glory in defining a review as commentary that helps hone an art form-or as an installment in an ongoing dialogue between a society’s creative cohorts and everyone else.
Award-winning essayist and former Commonweal contributor Lee Siegel opts for the latter paradigm in his new book Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television, a collection of boobtube-related musings written for the print and online versions of the New Republic. (He is a senior editor at the magazine.) Though the pieces dutifully touch on such towering aesthetic achievements as Friends, Deal or No Deal, Alias, RENO 911! and SpongeBob SquarePants, the writing inevitably hares off into the intellectual stratosphere, exploring the shows’ connections to...