In “On Writing,” his well-loved guide, Stephen King exhorts budding writers to get rid of their televisions, claiming that watching TV is “poisonous to creativity.” Luckily, most of the 12 writers in “Little Boxes” didn’t listen.
Most, if not all, of the contributors here are late millennials or pre-millennials, which means a lot of essays from 30-somethings about ’80s and ’90s TV. But despite these relatively small parameters, the essays travel thrillingly in style and perspective.
The book opens with a masterful essay by Elena Passarello, who focuses on “Northern Exposure” — in particular, its soundtrack. A good number of the essays here discuss the phenomenon of re-watching a show from youth, with the particular wistfulness and strangeness that entails. Passarello draws parallels between this experience and the show’s release on DVD, in which much of its original soundtrack had to be jettisoned, since rights to the songs were prohibitively expensive. The show is not the same show, as we are not the same person we were when we first watched: “The lacuna between the two versions of myself is now on the TV and it is a tense and ultimately unnamable thing. It’s some mix of itchy nostalgia, the panic of aging, and the confrontation of loss.”
This nostalgia is also evident in Rumaan Alam’s ode to the “Very Special Episodes” and in T Clutch Fleischmann’s erotic paean to Cinemax’s soft-core sci-fi show “Emmanuelle in Space.” In these, the nostalgia is intertwined with a nascent understanding of difference. For Fleischmann, Emmanuelle’s “multiple” body made her “the first trans person” they ever saw, at a time when they were only able to partially identify with lesbian and gay figures on the small screen. For Alam, TV defined normalcy: “I could affirm my suspicion that I was not normal by confirming what normal looked like, and I could understand the rituals of American life that my immigrant parents were ill equipped to teach me.”
Some of the most moving essays in “Little Boxes” ponder current events that have changed our ability to see a TV show from the past in the way we once could. V.V. Ganeshananthan writes about watching “The Cosby Show” through the lens of Bill Cosby’s rape trial. Danielle Evans closes the book with a powerful reflection on watching “Daria” after the election of Donald Trump. We get the sense, reading Evans on Jodie, “Daria” ’s most central black character, that in the current political climate, representation in pop culture matters more than ever for young people. Perhaps in 15 to 20 years, “Little Boxes” will spawn a welcome sequel.
Colleen Abel is the author of “Remake,” a collection of poetry. She is a 2017-18 Tulsa Artist Fellow.
Little Boxes: 12 Writers on Television
Edited by: Caroline Casey.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 129 pages, $16.95.