Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television by Lee Siegel (Basic Books, 354 pages, $15.95 paper); Neptune Noir: Unauthorized Investigations Into "Veronica Mars" edited by Rob Thomas with Leah Wilson (Benbella Books, 214 pages, $17.95 paper). Literate television commentary has never been an easy sell in America. Those capable of it would usually prefer to write about other things and those media capable of running it think there's more money and readership elsewhere. None of this diminishes the need for it, which is why Benbella Books of Dallas has a "Smart Pop" series devoted to semi-serious examinations of "Grey's Anatomy," "CSI" and, yes, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" among other subjects. An unusual specimen and winner from the series is this one which presents "Veronica Mars" creator and producer Rob Thomas introducing and responding to 200 pages of feisty, literate fan commentary about his preternaturally smart series.
Thomas, who created the canceled teen sleuth, writes that long before he created such series as "Cupid" and "Veronica Mars," he wondered how "clearly godawful programming made it on the air."
What he has learned after nine years in the TV and film business, he says, is that "it's a minor miracle when any finished product doesn't suck."
Those writers about his baby here -- and incurring his responses to them -- include several professors of this and that as well as the estimable Heather Havrilesky of Salon. It's absolutely the bon voyage "Veronica Mars" deserved.
Lee Siegel was an intermittently brilliant recent writer about TV for the New Republic who was fascinatingly caught somewhere between the weird new life of the blogosphere and the manner of the post-McLuhan '70s Golden Age of Literate TV Commentary (Michael Arlen, John Leonard and James Wolcott on our shores, Clive James across the pond). When he began to blog on the New Republic Web site, as well as review TV for the magazine, he found himself temporarily suspended for defending his own work with a made-up blog responder called "Sprezzatura" -- a prank he called it, but clearly one indicative of the recklessness possible out there in the world of virtual wisdom.
It was Siegel's altogether brilliant Jon Stewart bash that helped get him into trouble and it's here in "Not Remotely Controlled," one of the best personal anthologies of TV criticism since the last time John Leonard got around to collecting his work. Here is a writer who, in reviewing "CSI: New York," will suddenly bring forth German sociologist Georg Simmel and his essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life," a fellow who, without shame, quotes Andre Gide in a piece on news anchors (according to Siegel, Gide said "you cannot appear sincere and be sincere at the same time").
Not everything here is on the same high level but his final essay, on Oprah Winfrey from 2006, is as smart a consideration of Oprah's culture-rocking genius as any I know of. ("Like all seminal creative figures, her essential gift is her synthesizing power. She has taken the most consequential strands in modern life and woven them together into an hour-long show that is a work of art.")
Not everyone reading it will know that when he says "In 1986, human nature in America started to change," he is alluding to a famous line of Virginia Woolf's, but it doesn't matter. His is commentary that the world's most powerful medium deserves.
-- Jeff Simon