Little Boxes, Essays
Edited by Caroline Casey
Coffee House Press, 2017
124 pages, $16.99
Reviewed by Ashley Miller

Television, the ever-glowing “box in the corner of the living room,” is a ubiquitous part of daily life for many Americans. Television’s pervasive presence, its blaring blue light delivering a “mediated version of experience” into public consciousness, is examined in the collection of essays Little Boxes edited by Caroline Casey. Twelve authors of various backgrounds and identities explore the influence television and individual shows have on both singular life experiences and, incidentally, the collective human experience.

This collective experience of television spawns from a saturation of exposure — Americans never truly seem to tune out — and this flood of shared information creates cultural understanding of characters, situations, taglines, jingles, product names, and trends. As author Jenny Hendrix points out, “we all know the meaning of ‘Seinfeld jeans’ and ‘Rainbow Brite boots’ and running slow motion on the beach.” And she further breaks the situation down, understanding that while these matters “are jokes…and a form of nostalgia…They are also a kind of code for interpreting the actual stuff of life.”

Television is, in a way, an all-powerful cultural phenomenon that intersects public and private experience. Even for those who may be kept from watching television throughout their formative years, as Jenny Hendrix was, the absence of television can be just as influential in molding thought and experience as its presence. The act of watching television, both the personal reactions and experiences and those shared across public spheres, create complicated crossroads that serve as fertile ground for these twelve authors’ essays.  The observations presented in Little Boxes not only hold an intellectual appeal to those interested in the cultural importance of television, but they appeal to anyone who has ever had a favorite television character, who still remembers a particularly poignant Very Special Episode or the first time you saw a version of yourself on screen. Really, this collection will interest anyone who has ever been captivated by a fictional world flickering on the small screen.

Jenny Hendrix, in her essay “Yours Mine and Ours: Outside and Inside the Box,” explains that “TV homogenizes us.” It gives us something a more exciting than weather to chat about aimlessly, it creates a sense of community, and provides “bonds based on sharing a reaction to something.” Even if that something is just a fabricated bit of fantasy with no real world consequences.

Some essays examine television through this shared cultural lens, like Justin Taylor’s essay examining Dawson’s Creek and the phenomenon of “hate watching” – “why we are drawn to keep watching things even when we don’t really like them,” or Elisa Gabbert’s exploration of the concept of beauty and identity in Anne of Green Gables and television as a whole. Others scrutinize television from a deeply personal area, as we see with Ryan Van Meter’s experience with Days of Our Lives, Nina McConigley and Justin Torres’s reflections on the importance of representation in media, more specifically the world-changing experience of seeing a reflection of yourself on the television screen. But just as television crisscrosses these personal and public boundaries so do the essays, because no one experiences television in a vacuum.

While the majority of the essays play with boundaries between public and private experience, many also play with expectations of the essay form. Many provide interesting twists in form and also tone or voice, lending texture to the collection and keeping it from feeling staunchly academic. Take Justin Torres’s reflection on his experience of witnessing a queer Latino character on television for the first time, which reads more like a prose poem to the character of Rickie Valasquez from My So Called Life than a standard essay, or Nina McConigley’s writing that uses devices of script writing to add personal flavor and color to her essay. And then there is T Clutch Fleischmann’s contribution, which boldly embodies the bald eroticism and sexuality of soft-core pornography programs.

Regardless of, or perhaps due to, how the essays are presented, readers will find themselves nodding along with the authors’ understandings. They may even mutter “yes!” or “oh, right!” as memories are churned and they experience a strange form of nostalgia, akin to finding a long-forgotten stuffed animal in mom’s attic, as the ways in which TV has touched or changed or illuminated real life become clear.

These moments of fluttering nostalgia and fervent nodding amazingly serve to highlight that shared cultural experience of television and cement the thesis of the collection; TV is “part of your cultural DNA” and it is important. While television may be frivolous or vapid or absolute garbage a lot of the time, it is obviously important. As Rumaan Alam explains, “just because something is rubbish doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter” and Little Boxes proves in many ways how TV obviously does matter.