By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
Television has been called “the plug-in drug” and blamed for the dumbing down of America. People watching television have been said to “veg out” in front of the TV (becoming mindless vegetables, “couch potatoes.”) Today’s TV content includes things which even 20 years ago would’ve been relegated to R-rated films (for example, the gory violence in a show like The Walking Dead).
Nevertheless, according to at least one author, television is more thoughtful and more carefully written than it has ever been.
According to Stephen Johnson’s book, Everything Bad is Good For You, television shows are making more and more demands on the audience’s thinking. Just as books require “attention, patience, retention” and the ability to comprehend multiple plotlines, says Johnson, so now many TV shows are requiring the same.
There have always been intelligent TV shows which stand out among less-than-challenging fare (some of you remember M*A*S*H or The Mary Tyler Moore Show from the ’70s), but such shows delivered all the intelligence prepackaged in the content itself. The better shows of today are not just being smart, they are demanding that the viewer be smart as well. Please note: I’m not talking about what’s good or bad in the content of any of these shows; I’m just talking about their improved intelligence.
Typical shows in the twentieth century provided a fairly straightforward, linear plot (one in which every event followed on the heels of a previous event in a cause/effect fashion), all self-contained within a single episode. Today’s shows have multiple plotlines progressing simultaneously, carrying those plotlines over several episodes in what is called a long “story arc.” They often ignore a normal progression of time, resorting to flashbacks or even flash-forwards.
The quintessential example of this kind of story writing for me was the show Lost. For six seasons, Lost rewrote the rules of TV plot-making. It became the closest thing I’d ever seen to a book: instead of a short, self-contained plot in each episode, Lost had a beginning, a middle, and an end—a long plot history with multiple subplots and multiple characters, most of whom had their own stories and character development.
Because Lost was as long as a novel, it could do many things novels do which television hadn’t done before. Lost wasn’t the first show to do this but was the first to become popular doing it. It also constantly made use of flashbacks, and then shocked its audience in later seasons by its creative use of flash-forwards and even flashes sideways.
Making Us Smarter
This method of storytelling is now entrenched in American television. A few crime dramas still offer the older approach of single episode plots—episodes which are, for the most part, complete in themselves—and I think this is a good thing because it provides variety. (CSI is a good example, though it occasionally indulges in longer story arcs.) But longer, more sophisticated stories are here to stay.
These shows’ demands on viewers are many: We have to accept pieces of information and hold them till they are completely explained (possibly not for several episodes). We may meet new characters whom everyone else in the story knows but we won’t know much about till later. We have to keep several storylines in our heads at once; a single episode in a series may pick up all those plot threads or only a few of them. This means we also have to pay more attention and remember carefully as we watch through a show.
I believe all this has happened because people want to be mentally challenged (the ratings of such shows are the proof), and technology has made it possible: TV shows can act more like long books which take hours to read because TV can now be recorded and retrieved more easily. My wife and I record our favorite shows on a DVR so we can watch when we want to, fast forward through commercials, and never miss a series episode. And if we learn about a great series which we missed, we can find it on Netflix and watch it at our leisure.
All this essentially means that, even if its moral content or theological ideas have not improved, television’s intelligence has. And that means it’s not all bad.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.