Les séries télévisées
L'avenir du cinéma ?
Paris : Armand Colin, 2015
Broché. 227 pp. 15 illus. ISBN 978-2200293635. 23 €
Reviewed by Guillaume Labrude
Université de Lorraine
Jean-Pierre Esquenazi is one of the most important French scholars writing about television series, particular American. As is suggested in the title of his book, he questions the links between TV shows and cinema. He describes what he considers to be – and, in this, he is not alone – a TV revolution, which has been taking place since the 1990s, that equates television series with masterpieces from the cinema. Despite his sometimes over-personal judgments about certain showrunners' personalities or TV shows' quality, Esquenazi offers readers objective testimony about television series and their evolution to be considered as art.
Les séries télévisées – L'avenir du cinéma? begins with an introduction about the early success of American (and some rare British) TV shows and a critique of the public's general ignorance about this art form. The book is composed of five sections, containing a total eleven chapters. The five main sections include studies of TV shows and their diffusion and reception, their production, their narrative strategies, their artistic dimensions, and their social criticism. Esquenazi's main thesis is that TV shows evolved in various ways since their creation during the mid-20th century and became a major art throughout the decades that followed. In the middle of his book, he provides eight pages of photographs that give a graphic representation of this evolution through different shows from I Love Lucy in 1951 to Desperate Housewives in 2004.
The first section, about broadcasting, deals with the history of television and its relationship with its public. From the first television sets in American living rooms to the Internet, Esquenazi details the history of this new cathodic member of the family and how it created access to art, culture, information and entertainment. He links the families inside and in front of the television set in order to illustrate how this cultural machine became a mirror of modern American society. In section two, on the TV shows' production, Esquenazi deals with the economic notions of American media. The author uses the production model of American TV programs to explain how dramas or sitcoms were created. He offers the example of Steven Bochco, creator of Hill Street Blues, to illustrate his vision of the American production and the significant role of the showrunners.
The third section, on narrative strategies, explores how serial narration has evolved since the creation of television. The author details the different types of TV shows – dramas, sitcoms, soap operas, etc... – and explains their narrative differences. This part also deals with the legacy of popular fictions and the ''art of time'' which allows different characters to be developed through hours and hours, season after season. The fourth section, dedicated to the styles and forms of American TV shows, is very technical in its analysis on the rhythm of writing and narration, and, strangely, on the intimate lives of several characters, the reason for which evades me. Esquenazi links the narrative strategies to the psychology, the family and the love-lives of these characters as their personalities evolve through the seasons. The fifth and final section, on social criticism, deals with the most recent TV series that represent American society, be it metaphorically or realistically. Esquenazi compares these TV shows to a carnival in their similar use of traditions, masks and illusion-making to create imagined people for the public to consume.
Les séries télévisées is a very interesting book because it gives a global vision of the history and economy relevant to American TV series. Jean-Pierre Esquenazi provides sound analysis about these TV shows, and the place of television in modern American society. He offers a lot of examples, be they TV shows from the 1950s or 2000s, to illustrate his ideas. The most interesting point he makes is linking TV series with older art forms, such as Shakespearean drama or medieval romance. For Esquenazi, TV shows are not just a fad; these are an evolution of the ancient arts. With each example analyzed, Esquenazi demonstrates his critical acumen and expansive knowledge of American television.
If I have one major criticism about this book, it would be that Esquenazi often gets so wrapped up in his panorama of American television that he ends up neglecting their comparison with the cinematographic arts announced in his title. The result is that this book is more about the evolution of American television and less about the comparisons between American TV and cinema. Moreover, his writing style is unnecessarily complex in places. As is often the case with French academics, Esquenazi composes long sentences with an accumulation of technical words, resulting in an overly difficult reading experience. Consequently, his ideas are not as clearly expressed as they could / should be. The book becomes less interesting when it appears that the author is trying to intentionally impress his readers with his clever use of technical, intellectual or erudite language.
To conclude, Les séries télévisées – L'avenir du cinéma? is very useful for readers who already have an extensive knowledge of American TV series that will aid them in following Esquenazi's many examples. Yet, because the book is difficult at times to comprehend, it is not intended for a general reading public.
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