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I don't watch much television. Except, of course, for The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, ER, The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The X-Files, Homicide, Melrose Place, Duckman, Dr. Katz and Space Ghost Coast-to-Coast. The fact is, you can hardly claim to be a well-rounded culture consumer without appreciating TV's equal-opportunity ability to amuse and astound. I've never seen John Leonard on television, either, although he comments on the medium on every "CBS Sunday Morning." You'll otherwise find him writing about television for New York magazine and covering books for the Nation.
In Smoke and Mirrors, Leonard makes an animated and provocative defense of television culture that takes the world's most addictive drug on its own terms. He views TV neither as purely commercial entertainment mired in crass lowest-common-denominator pandering nor as some what-you-see-is-what-we-are reflection of a society on the wane. For Leonard, television is "partly a window and partly a mirror"; it resembles "a household pet, like a loyal retriever or a household appliance, like a microwave oven, a vacuum cleaner, an Exercycle or a night-light, as well as a department store and amusement park."
Other writers have written with more analytic acumen about precisely how television works its magic. Leonard, however, revels in TV's never-ending and multifaceted capacity to faithfully reflect the spectrum of "appalling values" that define our culture. He's enough of a liberal to appreciate television's tradition of exposing its viewership to controversial issues -- although many might find his praise of the countless made-for-TV productions about rape, incest, sexual abuse, kidnapping and AIDS excessive. But by placing television and letters on the same level, Leonard stakes out a position refreshingly distinct from both his hypocritical left-intellectual brethren and the would-be censors of the right. And there's really no better place to be these days, except perhaps in front of the set. -- Salon