TV Junkies Are Exercising Their Minds More Than Ever
Debating Pop Culture
TV Junkies Are Exercising Their Minds More Than Ever
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 13 2005 8:44 AM

Debating Pop Culture



I'm glad to hear that at least part of Everything Bad's argument rang true to you, and I'm tempted to just call it a draw: If you accept the premise that the interactive media and the games are indeed sharpening our minds along the lines I describe, perhaps I should just concede the point about television and end the debate right here. But that wouldn't be any fun, would it?


So here's my ultimate question to you about the state of TV watching, borrowed from the Gipper's debate-school playbook: Are we better off today than we were 30 years ago? You seem willing to concede the formal advances of today's television: the complex storytelling, the more intricate social networks, the refusal to pander to lowest-common-denominator explanations of every little plot twist, and so on. Perhaps we disagree about how transferable those skills are to the real world, but at least there seems to be agreement that the 30-year story is a positive one where complexity is concerned.

How about the ADD-enabling annoyances of the advertising? I find commercial breaks every bit as distracting as you do, which is why I much prefer watching shows on DVD or on TiVo or on HBO. And of course, DVDs and TiVo and HBO didn't exist back in the '70s; the only way to avoid commercial breaks was either to leave the room or watch PBS. So, however annoying the advertising is today, there are many more ways around it than there were 30 years ago.

How about the substance of the shows—the question, as you put it, of what we're learning when we watch these shows? Perhaps we disagree here, but when I look back at the television lineups from the 1970s, I don't see a lot of psychological depth or complex social analysis. I see CHiPs. At the high end of the spectrum, I don't see anything from 30 years ago that rivals the genuinely novelistic scale and originality of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, the dark satire of Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even the cinematic dread and general creepiness of Lost (though I admit I am only a few episodes into the latter, so please—no spoilers.) I like Soap and M*A*S*H as much as the next person, but I'll happily take the more formulaic sitcoms today—Everybody Loves Raymond or King Of Queens—over the generally awfully Garry Marshall sitcoms that dominated the ratings back then. But perhaps your mileage varies—these are aesthetic judgments, after all. I can point only to another review of my book—this one from Salon—where my argument about the positive trends in TV quality was critiqued for being too obvious: "What I wonder, though, is, Doesn't everyone know that today's TV is better than yesterday's TV? It's here that I think Johnson's too focused on straw men. … Is there anyone who prefers 'Hill Street Blues,' which as Johnson points out was one of the best dramas of the 1980s, to 'The West Wing' or 'ER' or 'The Sopranos'? I imagine only the very nostalgic would say they do."

And then there is the question of passivity. You rightly point out that TV doesn't offer the truly interactive engagement of games or the Web. But the Net has actually had an important lateral effect on the way people now engage with TV. Since the late '70s, the number of armchair critics, annotators, fan-fiction remixers, and Monday morning quarterbacks has exploded in number, all of them posting their comments or stories or fan resources on the vast pop encyclopedia that is the Web today. Take a look at the discussion forums for a show like The Apprentice, and you'll see the intensity with which these fans dissect the actions of the show's contestants: arguing over their ethical behavior, their business acumen, their strategic thinking, their personal responsibility—in other words, all the issues that people grapple with in their real-world office relationships. So, yes, the act of watching television is technically still as passive as ever. But there has been a tremendous increase in the number of people who compensate for that passivity by actively writing out their thoughts on last night's episode and publishing those thoughts for the world to read.

Add all those factors up—more complexity, fewer ads, richer content, and more interactivity—and I think the trend is undeniable. Today's TV junkies are exercising their minds more than their predecessors did in the 1970s, and they're not just training their ability to multitask. Does that mean that I think people should watch 30 hours of TV a week? Of course not. Would I prefer to live in a culture where people read as much George Eliot as they watched Fear Factor? Absolutely. But I'm not describing what my ideal cultural ecosystem would look like; I'm trying to combat the tiresome idea that we live in age where cheap pleasures and instant gratifications are on the rise, and subtlety and complexity are growing increasingly obsolete. In fact, the trends all point in the opposite direction. That's not reason to give up on the novel or stop fighting the encroachments of banal advertising. But it is reason for hope.