posted 2012-03-07 18:46:42

Watch More Television!

Reexamining the value of TV

Christian Davies, Contributing Wrtier

I love good plays, poems and short stories. But recently I’ve come to realize something: over the last ten years, televi- sion has become our most effective story- telling medium. In general, it is riskier, more creative and better able to explore the complexities of human nature than movies, plays or novels. Television series, both in comedy and drama, tend to be the best written, best produced, and most clearly expressed stories we have. It’s time they are given their due.

Great stories have always been an im- portant part of our culture. It is something we have always needed and will continue to need in our lives. Joseph Campbell, the great thinker and writer who dedicated his life to the study of myths and their relevance to our lives, famously said that myths are not the search for meaning but the experience of it. Stories, which are born from myths, serve the same purpose. For many of us, stories are a way of inter- preting life, and the greatest stories being told today are being told on television.

Look at some of the amazing shows we have right now, each one of them as complex and nuanced as our greatest novels, plays, or films: Mad Men (AMC), Boardwalk Empire (HBO), The Good Wife (CBS), Breaking Bad (AMC), Downton Ab- bey (PBS), 30 Rock (NBC), Californication (HBO) and the wonderfully fresh American Horror Story (FX). They are all on the air right now, and are the descendants of the legacy created by masterpieces like The Sopranos (HBO), Six Feet Under (HBO), Deadwood (HBO), The West Wing (NBC), Friday Night Lights (DirecTV), The Wire (HBO), and Arrested Development (FOX). These are great dramas and comedies; they are great stories.

To get an idea of how impressive these series’ accomplishments are, we should compare them to films. While the average film is about a hundred minutes long, the average season for a one-hour drama is between five hundred and a thousand min- utes long. For example, Mad Men (AMC), which won the Emmy Award for Outstand- ing Drama Series in each of its first four seasons, has had fifty-two episodes and more than twenty-four hundred minutes of programming. That is equivalent to twenty-four feature films. It takes an unprecedented creative focus to maintain such high artistic quality through such long bodies of work.

Without film’s traditional time constraints, these television series are able to probe deeply into the inner lives of their characters. And isn’t that what great storytelling does? Isn’t the inner life of Jackie Peyton, the drug-addicted nurse and protagonist of Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, every bit as multifaceted, unpredictable, and illuminating as the female protago- nists of our great plays and novels?

But wait. With all this talk about turning on the boob tube and ignoring that lifelong chide of advice—TV is bad, bad, bad, sonny boy—aren’t we ignoring its negative side effects? Isn’t television a passive activity that rots our brains and deters our intellectual, emotional, and academic success in life?

No, it’s not. Let’s put that lie to rest.

In the New York Times bestseller Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Ste- phen J. Dubner discredit the theory that TV is bad for us. Levitt and Dubner, citing the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) by the U.S. Department of Educa- tion in the late 1990s, found no correlation between a child who “frequently watches television” and that child’s success in high school. Levitt and Dubner pointed out that “despite the conventional wisdom, watch- ing television apparently does not turn a child’s brain to mush.” Interestingly, and not surprisingly, factors such as the parents’ socioeconomic status and age at the time of their first child’s birth did correlate with a child’s high school success. An honest discussion of these variables would probably do a lot more good than the same old debate over whether or not television is good for us.

Television also serves as a tool for education. There are more documenta- ries, academic programs, and historical dramas on television now, and of a much higher quality, than there have ever been. In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner also point out that, “in Finland, whose education system has been ranked the world’s best, most children do not begin school until age seven but have often learned to read on their own by watching American television with Finnish subtitles.” The highest ranked education system in the world, and their children are learning to read by watching television. That’s something to consider while judging whether or not television has a negative effect on us.

Some of the most enriching, intellectually stimulating, and entertaining content that has ever been produced by the human race is a click or two away from us right now. And best of all, it doesn’t rot our brains, despite what your mother said! So let’s all relax, take away the guilt that’s been forced on us in regards to television, and make ourselves into slightly better human beings by spending hours and hours in front of the idiot box.

As a note, I still love great plays and novels. Please don’t stop reading, even as you up your dosage of great TV.