cover image Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors

. New Press, $23 (304pp) ISBN 978-1-56584-226-7

With all the recent focus on rating systems for television programming, the timing couldn't be better for Leonard's second book (after The Last Innocent White Man in America). Leonard, who is now literary editor at The Nation as well as TV commentator for CBS Sunday Morning, is a rambler, but he hits close to home. He's no sociologist, but, unlike most cultural critics, he only occasionally forgets this and manages to tell us a lot about why and how we watch TV. He begins Smoke and Mirrors with a premise (that TV is ""partly a window and partly a mirror"" for our culture) and an agenda (to pooh-pooh politicians who say TV is responsible for social ills), but mostly Leonard just wants to talk about his favorite shows. Ed Sullivan gets a whole chapter, because, as Leonard explains, with his disparate groupings of talent, he originated channel surfing. ""Pulp fictions"" (think Westerns), Cop/PI shows and social-dilemma programming each get a chapter, and Leonard's ranging lists, punning asides and unbridled glee leave almost nothing out, not Cop Rock, not O.J.'s Bronco. We get smatterings of autobiography: his revelation about recovery explains his partiality toward shows with heroes who trudge into AA meetings. Think smart people don't watch TV? Leonard recounts the excited conversation between Fran Lebowitz and Toni Morrison the night before Morrison accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature: it turns out they'd watched every scrap of the first two Menendez trials, much of it while on the phone to each other. While he purports to be TV's apologist, Leonard is much more entertaining as a one-man cultural maelstrom, and though it's clear from his outdated MTV references that he doesn't watch everything, he does watch enough to make us want to watch him. (Mar.)