- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008

There’s wasting time [-] and then there’s wasting time productively. We all could use a little advice regarding the latter, uh, inactivity. Happily, Jeff Alexander, author of “A TV Guide to Life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know From Watching Television,” is here to help. The book is not, to be sure, an empirical, data-bolstered attempt to upend conventional wisdom, a la Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.”

Rather, it’s a comic history of scripted television, parceled out in neat little life-application chapters: among them school, work, relationships and death - what Mr. Alexander, 38, calls the “life cycle of a human being.”

The book is a “A Purpose-Driven Life” for TV junkies.

It did require extensive research, of a sort.

Mr. Alexander, who writes TV criticism for the blog Television Without Pity, has an unnervingly encyclopedic memory of a lot of terrifically bad TV shows. Readers, how many of you remember the one-season-only CBS series “Whiz Kids,” about a group of teenage computer hackers?

Anybody?

How about its network-mate of a similar vintage, “Square Pegs,” starring a young Sarah Jessica Parker?

The book’s epigraph is a quote, via the movie “Good Night, Good Luck,” from a frightfully portentous Edward R. Murrow to the effect that the worthiness of television will turn on the question of whether it can do more that just entertain us. It has the potential to teach, illuminate and even inspire us, provided that “humans are determined to use it to those ends.”

With his tongue pointed toward, if not planted in, his cheek, Mr. Alexander says we humans have met the Murrow standard - just not in the earnest, C-SPAN-y way the famed journalist imagined.

What was “Beverly Hillbillies” fame have experienced far less culture shock if they had owned a television?

When pressed, Mr. Alexander admits that, yes, he’s a book reader. He even had a stint in that most ancient of mediums, radio, as a writer on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”

As only a compulsive TV watcher could attest, consuming inordinate amounts of television has become a lot more taxing of late.

Recall, Mr. Alexander says, the halcyon days when die-hard TV watchers could pass an untold number of hours passively watching reruns in syndication.

“It used to be, the goal was to have 100 interchangeable episodes,” he says. “If you watched ‘I Love Lucy,’ there was before Little Ricky and after Little Ricky. That was the only timeline; everything else was the same.”

The syndication market isn’t what it used to be; the old standbys have decamped to TV Land. The networks and major cable channels now offer up reality shows with involving scenarios, complex dramas like “Lost” and the time-sensitive plotlines of “24.”

These days, “the tricky part is getting in early on a show before it gets too complicated,” Mr. Alexander says.

There are, of course, fancy methods for perpetually on-the-go audiences to manage a proliferating amount of programming - digital video recorders that enable viewers to watch shows when it’s most convenient, as well as phones and MP3 players that double as miniature boob tubes.

From one angle, such technology befits a public that’s becoming increasingly ignorant of reality and important news - Mr. Murrow’s nightmare scenario.

Yet such technology also may be a symptom of what Mr. Alexander believes is the happiest outcome of hard-core TV fandom: Through blogs and other outlets, audiences are refusing to let TV think for them. They’re demanding more interactivity and more sophistication.

They (not fondly) remember, as Mr. Alexander does, easily sussing out the killer each week on “Remington Steele.”

“We’re holding it to a high standard,” he says.

By and large, they’re getting what they demand. Satire is sharper (“Arrested Development,” “The Office”). Science fiction is far less hokey (“Battlestar Galactica”). Crime drama has become startlingly more realistic (“The Wire”).

Mr. Alexander offers a subtle example of the changing tone of TV wisdom. Such 1980s sitcoms as “Family Ties” and “The Hogan Family” occasionally served up self-consciously didactic episodes on serious topics such as drunken driving, culminating in a “grand awakening.”

Then there’s young A.J. of “The Sopranos.”

“He was always a screw-up, but he never really learned anything,” Mr. Alexander says.

Many parents of adolescents could surely relate.

Fortunately for them, “A TV Guide to Life” has a chapter on parenting.

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