The Philosophy of TV Noir

The Philosophy of TV Noir

Steven M. Sanders
Aeon J. Skoble
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt130j91f
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Philosophy of TV Noir
    Book Description:

    Film noir reflects the fatalistic themes and visual style of hard-boiled novelists and many émigré filmmakers in 1940s and 1950s America, emphasizing crime, alienation, and moral ambiguity. InThe Philosophy of TV Noir, Steven M. Sanders and Aeon J. Skoble argue that the legacy of film noir classics such asThe Maltese Falcon, Kiss Me Deadly,andThe Big Sleepis also found in episodic television from the mid-1950s to the present.

    In this first-of-its-kind collection, contributors from philosophy, film studies, and literature raise fundamental questions about the human predicament, giving this unique volume its moral resonance and demonstrating why television noir deserves our attention. The introduction traces the development of TV noir and provides an overview and evaluation of the book's thirteen essays, each of which discusses an exemplary TV noir series.

    Realism, relativism, and integrity are discussed in essays onDragnet, Naked City, The Fugitive,andSecret Agent. Existentialist themes of authenticity, nihilism, and the search for life's meaning are addressed in essays onMiami Vice, The Sopranos, Carnivale,and24. The methods of crime scene investigation inThe X-FilesandCSIare examined, followed by an exploration of autonomy, selfhood, and interpretation inThe Prisoner, Twin Peaks, The X-Files,andMillennium.

    With this focus on the philosophical dimensions of crime, espionage, and science fiction series,The Philosophy of TV Noirdraws out the full implications of film noir and establishes TV noir as an art form in its own right.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5678-1
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. An Introduction to the Philosophy of TV Noir
    (pp. 1-30)
    Steven M. Sanders

    Television is the definitive medium of popular culture. With its mass audience, TV has become indispensable for transmitting the legacy of film noir and producing new forms of noir.The Philosophy of TV Noirwas conceived in the belief that the themes, styles, and sensibilities of film noir are preserved even as they are transformed in a variety of television series from the mid-1950s to the present.

    No doubt readers can identify the principal characters and describe numerous episodes of many of the television series discussed in this book. But while one’s knowledge of TV noir may be extensive in...

  5. Part 1: Realism, Relativism, and Moral Ambiguity
    • Dragnet, Film Noir, and Postwar Realism
      (pp. 33-48)
      R. Barton Palmer

      Conceived by radio actor Jack Webb, who also starred and directed,Dragnetwas one of the longest-running and most critically acclaimed dramatic series of 1950s American television, with a phenomenal total of 263 episodes broadcast from 1952–1959 and a reprise (for which there was little precedent in the industry) in 1967–1970 that generated a hundred more programs. No doubt Webb’s police drama dominated the airwaves in the earlier decade. The initial version of the show was designed for radio, first airing in 1949 and continuing for 318 weekly episodes until 1955. Not only did the two series run...

    • Naked City: The Relativist Turn in TV Noir
      (pp. 49-68)
      Robert E. Fitzgibbons

      Film noir’s evolution from the silver screen to the television screen was untidy at best; and this is nowhere more evident than in the transition from the feature-length movieThe Naked City(Jules Dassin, 1948) to the TV show of the same title some ten years later. Although the movie was not the best of the noir genre, it was good and had many of the unmistakable classic noir markings: high-contrast black-and-white photography, stark images, severe camera angles, brutality, (a bit of) suggested sexual promiscuity, mystery, a major touch of evil, and moral absolutes. It was an exciting police story,...

    • John Drake in Greeneland: Noir Themes in Secret Agent
      (pp. 69-82)
      Sander Lee

      The television seriesSecret Agent, though regarded as mere entertainment by most viewers, contains philosophical themes that raise it above most television shows of its time and connect it with themes found in such noir espionage films asThe Third Man(Carol Reed, 1949) andMinistry of Fear(Fritz Lang, 1944), both of which were based on the work of the British writer Graham Greene.¹

      Known in Britain asDanger Man,Secret Agentdebuted in September 1960 as a half-hour espionage thriller starring Patrick McGoohan in the role of John Drake, an American agent for NATO who traveled the globe....

    • Action and Integrity in The Fugitive
      (pp. 83-92)
      Aeon J. Skoble

      The Fugitiveaired on ABC from 1963 to 1967 and starred David Janssen in the title role of Dr. Richard Kimble, on the run from the law, wanted for a crime he did not commit. It was classic TV noir, both stylistically and thematically. In terms of the noir aesthetic—the first three seasons were in black and white, and even though the fourth season was in color, for its entire run—the series was filmed with a distinctly noir sensibility: unusual and unsettling camera angles, shots and scenes that emphasized the loneliness and isolation of the protagonist, extensive use...

  6. Part 2: Existentialism, Nihilism, and the Meaning of Life
    • Noir et Blanc in Color: Existentialism and Miami Vice
      (pp. 95-114)
      Steven M. Sanders

      The connections between existentialism and TV noir are shown by the way the concepts of alienation, absurdity, existential freedom and choice—expressed with such fluency in novels, short stories, essays, and plays by thinkers associated with the existentialist movement—appear among the central themes of the classics of film noir and their television counterparts.¹ Of course, there are disputes about the nature of existentialism that were not resolved by the existentialists themselves in their own time, and I shall not attempt to settle them here. “Sartre resisted identification with existentialism as an intellectual fashion,” writes historian George Cotkin inExistential...

    • 24 and the Existential Man of Revolt
      (pp. 115-130)
      Jennifer L. McMahon

      One does not have to watch Fox’s hit series24for very long to see the noir elements in it. The focus on crime (namely terrorism), the stunning amount of violence; the cynical air of many of24’s lead characters; the presence of several femmes fatales, and the stoic resolve of the show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) are all suggestive of the noir style. I shall argue specifically that in addition to fitting the profile of the noir protagonist, Jack Bauer is also an example of Albert Camus’ existential hero, the man of revolt.

      Before turning my attention to...

    • Carnivàle Knowledge: Give Me That Old-time Noir Religion
      (pp. 131-142)
      Eric Bronson

      In the first season of HBO’sCarnivàle, a vagabond, not quite as dirty as the others, sits around a campfire, largely keeping to himself. As the liquor gets passed around, and stories told, the runaway Methodist minister loosens up enough to speak. What has brought him so low, he is asked. Did he lose his girlfriend? His job? After taking a hearty swig, Brother Justin despairingly replies, “I lost my God.”

      In many ways, Brother Justin’s response is vintage noir. As has been well documented, film noir first rose to popularity in the 1940s and ’50s, at a time when...

    • The Sopranos, Film Noir, and Nihilism
      (pp. 143-158)
      Kevin L. Stoehr

      The immensely popular and award-winning HBO seriesThe Sopranosis rooted in a nihilistic vision that reflects a general moral decline in contemporary American culture.¹ Nihilism is most generally denned as the belief in nothing at all, the conviction that nothing matters, not even oneself. It is an overall attitude toward the value of life, one evidenced by the words and actions of many of the characters in the series but most especially by those of its morally ambiguous protagonist, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfmi). Such a bleak worldview fuels the style and content of most episodes and also echoes the...

  7. Part 3: Crime Scene Investigation and the Logic of Detection
    • CSI and the Art of Forensic Detection
      (pp. 161-178)
      Deborah Knight and George McKnight

      We analyzeCSIas an example of TV noir, but before turning to the series, it is worth asking: Just what sorts of narratives count as noir, and why? We find examples of noir in literature, film, and television, but wherever such examples are found, noir is a hybrid of elements. Film scholars have persuasively argued that noir is not and has never been a genre in its own right. Silver and Ward, for example, suggest that “the relationship of film noir to genre is a tenuous one at best” and conclude that noir is better understood as a cycle...

    • Detection and the Logic of Abduction in The X-Files
      (pp. 179-200)
      Jerold J. Abrams and Elizabeth F. Cooke

      Film scholars agree that classic film noir emerges most prominently in the early 1940s withThe Maltese Falcon(John Huston, 1941) andThe Big Sleep(Howard Hawks, 1946), and lasts untilTouch of Evil(Orson Welles, 1958), setting the basic template: a hard-boiled detective in trench coat and fedora investigates a murder, interviews suspects, encounters a dangerous and beautiful femme fatale, navigates through a labyrinth to solve a mystery, and kills the killer. From the 1940s to the 1970s, however, as society began to change, film noir did, too (becoming neo-noir). Social issues, like race and gender, start to play...

  8. Part 4: Autonomy, Selfhood, and Interpretation
    • Kingdom of Darkness: Autonomy and Conspiracy in The X-Files and Millennium
      (pp. 203-228)
      Michael Valdez Moses

      In Michel Foucault’s influential account of the rise and consolidation of modern society, the individual soul, if it can be said to exist at all, is the easily manipulated product of an all-pervasive and interlocking set of disciplinary institutions and administrative bodies, a “carceral archipelago” consisting of prisons, schools, hospitals, psychiatric clinics, the army, social-welfare agencies, the police, and the courts. For most Americans, Foucault, like Orwell before him, would seem to describe the realities of Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany (rather than modern France), but in any case not those of the United States of America, whose citizens historically...

    • The Prisoner and Self-Imprisonment
      (pp. 229-246)
      Shai Biderman and William J. Devlin

      When we discuss the cinematic realm of noir, what exactly are we talking about? Literally, the word “noir” means dark. But what is so dark about these cinematic features to constitute them as films noirs? Typically, such features are dark in their imagery and content. Visually, most noir is characterized by dark scenery, tilted angles, black-and-white film to sharpen the contrast, and gloomy atmospheres. Meanwhile, their content is characterized by moral ambiguity, usually emphasized by the leading character—the dark hero who exemplifies the existential qualities of disturbance, complexity, anguish, and despair.¹

      Quite often, we find that this angst-ridden character...

    • Twin Peaks, Noir and Open Interpretation
      (pp. 247-260)
      Jason Holt

      Any fan ofTwin Peakswho encounters Goya’s lithographThe Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters(1803) cannot help but see an obvious connection to the landmark TV series; whether series creators David Lynch and Mark Frost had this connection in mind is of little importance. The lithograph depicts a sleeping figure slumped over a desk. From behind, almost out of view, the somnolent head, emerging from an indeterminate place that seems not quite real, are the so-called monsters identified, together with their cause, in the title: creatures far more sinister than their appearance would normally suggest, many of them winged...

  9. List of Contributors
    (pp. 261-264)
  10. Index
    (pp. 265-274)