The Philosophy of TV Noir (2008) Steven M. Sanders, Aeon J. Skoble, eds.
The Philosophy of Popular Culture series
Mark T. Conard, series editor
Hardcover, 272 pages
(includes brief bios of contributors, list of other books in the series, index)
Your sense of enjoyment of The Philosophy of TV Noir may depend upon how much you want to read about philosophy vs. how much you want to read about TV noir. If the book’s cover is any indication, the “TV Noir” aspect should greatly overshadow the philosophical component. But is this the case? This collection of essays brings a substantial amount of both subjects to the table. Some chapters veer off a little too far (and a little too deeply) into philosophy for me, but others were nothing short of astounding.
(Let me warn those who love film noir, yet care little for TV noir: This book is still for you. Many of the contributors discuss film noir from the classic era, not simply as a jumping-off point to focus on TV noir, but to explore many of film noir’s themes and styles themselves.)
Steven M. Sanders (professor emeritus of philosophy at Bridgewater State College, Mass.) introduces the book with a brief discussion of TV noir in light of film noir’s themes and styles, how the small screen borrowed concepts of moral ambiguity, alienation, paranoia, and more from the big screen. The visual style of film noir doesn’t always translate into TV noir (note, for instance, the often bright, colorful visuals of a show like Miami Vice), yet this is far from the only difference between formats. TV noir, especially in its writing, normally contains far more contributing writers and directors than does film, yet the containment of the TV series world may seem more compartmentalized. Also the protagonists of TV noir differ from film noir in that they rarely find closure until the end of a series (and perhaps not even then). Yet as film noir in the 1940s changed from post-WWII anxieties and despair, and the 1950s focused largely on corruption in once-trusted institutions and people in power, TV noir (in some cases, at least) takes both concepts further, casting a very large (and sometimes cosmic) net.
The Philosophy of TV Noir contains many surprises, depending on what you have seen (and what you may remember) from several TV noir shows spanning several decades. I had no idea, for instance that Dragnet had been a television show in two different eras. I remembered only the 1967-1970 color series and wasn’t even aware of the 1951-1959 series. Both are explored in an essay by R. Barton Palmer. If you’re not familiar with the original show (or either incarnation), you may be surprised at the noir concepts presented in these series.
I also had no idea there were also two series of The Naked City, inspired by the 1948 Jules Dassin film. The first series (1958-1959) was a semi-documentary style police procedural with 39 half-hour episodes. The second (1960-1961) took a very different direction. The format was expanded to an hour, but more importantly, the show moved beyond the good vs. evil battles of the police vs. criminals toward stories that contained more relativism and moral ambiguity. This essay by Robert E. Fitzgibbons examines the concepts of moral and cultural relativism from a philosophical angle.
The espionage show Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent in the U.S.) presents John Drake (Patrick McGoohan), an American agent for NATO whom, unlike James Bond, neither kills nor carries a gun. Yet Drake is constantly running up against situations that reveal moral relativism. Sander Lee’s essay points out that the films Ministry of Fear (1944) and The Third Man (1949) are important forerunners of Danger Man as the series explores not only moral relativism, but also nihilism. (Although you can find it streaming, I immediately ordered the complete Danger Man on DVD after reading this essay.) Like the previous TV series mentioned above, Danger Man was first broadcast in half-hour episodes (1960-1962) before moving to an hour-long format (1964-1968).
With any book of this type, readers will no doubt bring their own experiences (and baggage) to the table, including shows they haven’t seen and possibly didn’t enjoy the first time around. While I have never seen any episodes of Miami Vice (1984-1990), I am eager to watch the series for its intriguing stories, but more for the way it handles existentialist philosophies. Unfortunately, after having been hugely disappointed with much of the first three seasons of 24 (which ran for nine seasons), I can’t muster up the wherewithal to revisit that show, despite some excellent reasons to do so by Jennifer L. McMahon.
Yet what really surprised me was how several of the essays made me want to revisit shows I did enjoy the first time around. I now want to explore more of the philosophical components of shows like Carnivàle (2003-2005), The Sopranos (1999-2007), and The Prisoner (1967-1968). Credit the writers of these essays - Eric Bronson, Kevin L. Stoehr, and Shai Biderman & William J. Devlin, respectively - for showing me the depth inherent in shows I already admired.
I was, however, surprised to find that a series I had initially given up on after the first few seasons may be worth rediscovering: The X-Files. (This book was published in 2008, so it only covers the first series which aired from 1993 to 2002, not the 10th  or 11th  seasons.) I am particularly interested in the idea of how the darkness of The X-Files moves beyond the classic motivations of noir characters involving money, greed, and corruption toward the terrors of global control. As Michael Valdez Moses notes in one of two essays on the show, “the big-government remedies of old-time populists and socialists of the Cold War era are revealed to be not the solution but the problem…. Mulder, Scully, and Black (from the show Millennium) learn not to evade political responsibilities but to resist the illegitimate claims that the state makes on them. They become not apolitical but antipolitical figures.” (p. 233)
The writing throughout is quite good, yet only a couple of times did I find myself wanting to remind the writers, “This is about philosophy and noir, ya know…” Every reader is going to bring various levels of philosophical knowledge (or none) to the table, which is no doubt difficult to prepare for as a writer. Most writers seem to understand this and veer more toward the reader who knows more about TV noir than philosophy. The best of these essays explain the philosophies they discuss in the contexts of the shows, always bringing the discussion back to the subject of TV noir. One essay, “Twin Peaks, Noir, and Open Interpretation” by Jason Holt, hardly incorporates philosophical terms at all, yet examines the philosophies of the series in a very organic way that engages the reader as he examines the question many noir fans have about several series and movies: "Is this noir at all?"
I highly recommend The Philosophy of TV Noir to anyone interested in TV, noir, philosophy, or any combination of the three. It is a book I plan to revisit after I’ve watched (or rewatched) many of the series discussed in its pages. Perhaps you will as well.
Photos: The University Press of Kentucky, Secrets of Story, The Movie Database, Bustle, WGGS TV