A serious scholar of the American mindset usually would not look to popular television shows, especially comedies and science fiction dramas, to hold transcendent meaning and illustrate a historical trend of political importance. Indeed, it is at first tempting to dismiss Paul Cantor’s main thesis; it brings to mind a parody of literary criticism that circulated decades ago in which an anonymous theorist set out to unveil the hidden meanings in the children’s nursery rhyme Jack and Jill. After reading Cantor’s introduction and giving the matter some thought, however, the reader is tempted to say the reverse: Naturally popular entertainment such as television would reflect the values and leanings of its audience. The writers of these shows are, after all, as embedded in their culture as their audiences are. From this basis, and willing to accompany Cantor on his journey, the reader will find an amazing work of scholarship that details how these four shows reveal a change in Americans’ sense of their place in the world.
Cantor shows himself to be a writer with a humorous edge in his early section, “Notes on Method.” He states that as a professor, he has accountability for his methods. He then dismisses ordinary readers from bothering with the piece, states that his academic colleagues will accuse him of being “epistemologically naïve” no matter what he does, and then surmises “[n]ow that nobody is reading, I feel ready to proceed.” Nevertheless, this section reveals the difficulties Cantor faced and the decisions he made in selecting and then analyzing the material.
The book is divided into two parts. Part 1, called “National Television and the Democratic Ideology of America,” covers two shows from the 1960’s, Gilligan’s Island and Star Trek. It will probably be surprising to any reader that the oft-syndicated Gilligan’s Island contains any larger truths. However, setting aside the silliness of the longest three-hour cruise in maritime history, Cantor shows how the show’s basic plot illustrates the post-World War II confidence of America in even its most ordinary, unremarkable citizens, of whom Gilligan is representative. The group that lands on the deserted island comprises the strengths of America: the Skipper, as a former military man, represents military authority; Mr. Howell, as the millionaire, represents industrial might; and the Professor represents America’s scientific and technological expertise. Ginger, as the movie star, represents the entertainment industry in its seductiveness, and Mary Ann is the all-American girl next door. In Cantor’s opinion, the show illustrates how a group of Americans set down anywhere in the world will create a social order based on the principles of American democracy. Therefore, globalization means spreading the ideals of American democracy throughout the world. When an outcast Latin dictator shows up and tries to reform the island, he is eventually shown up by the castaways, who ultimately remain true to their democratic principles. The show also features several instances illustrating the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union as both astronauts and cosmonauts come into contact with the castaways.
Continuing the theme of space exploration during the Cold War, Star Trek portrays a world in which American democracy has spread beyond Earth and out into the universe. The name of the starship itself, the Enterprise, looks back to the battleships of World War II. Americans are still confident that they have the best of all systems and the moral soundness to promulgate that system. The well-known Prime Directive is supposed to prevent the crew of the Enterprise from interfering in the cultures they encounter. Cantor shows how, nonetheless, in episode after episode, the crew forces the ideas of democracy onto the people they encounter, whether they want to accept those principles or not.
Cantor also considers the feature films based on the original Star Trek series and uncovers some interesting ideas. In particular, he examines the sixth film, in which the idea of the “end of history” following the collapse of Soviet Communism parallels the near-collapse of the Klingon empire. The Klingons claim Shakespeare as their own, and Cantor wonders whether this means that the so-called end of history means an end to the need for heroes and the end of heroic literature.
Part 2, “Global Television and the Decline of the Nation-State,” examines two television shows broadcast during the 1990’s (both have continued into the...
(The entire section is 1892 words.)