In 1980, the writer George W. S. Trow published a riveting essay in The New Yorker about television and the state of American popular culture. “Within the Context of No-Context” explored the effect of TV on public life and the evolution of art. “The power behind [television] resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive,” Trow writes. “It is bewitching.” Trow’s tone may have been a bit overwrought at times (“No good has come of it”), but his essay, published as a book the following year, was prescient in many ways. And it spoke to the outsized effect the medium has had and continues to have on the popular taste and mores of American society at large.
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This week, we’re bringing you a selection of pieces about notable shows and how they have helped transform our culture. In “The Hit Man’s Burden,” from 1999, Nancy Franklin writes about a new show, “The Sopranos,” that explores the human side of the Mafia. (“There has certainly never been anything like it on TV, and on network TV there never could be anything like it—it goes out on a limb that doesn’t even exist at the networks.”) In “Cookie, Oscar, Grover, Herry, Ernie, and Company,” from 1972, Renata Adler considers the revolutionary, enlightening spirit of “Sesame Street.” In “Taking Humor Seriously,” from 2000, David Owen profiles George Meyer, one of the chief comedic visionaries behind “The Simpsons.” (The sitcom “is not only the funniest but also the most literate show on TV—a program that, in the words of the poet Robert Pinsky, a longtime fan, ‘penetrates to the nature of television itself.’ ”) Doreen St. Félix chronicles the chaotic spirit of Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” about the poignant aftermath of sexual assault, and, in a review from 1993, James Wolcott analyzes the wry comic agility of “Seinfeld.” Finally, in “Stealing Life,” Margaret Talbot describes how a former Baltimore Sun reporter named David Simon created “The Wire,” which he later described as “a novel for television.” As you consider what to stream during the long Thanksgiving weekend, tuck into some of these invigorating selections from our archive; they may help narrow your list.
—Erin Overbey, archive editor