Tuesday, May 03, 2005

More from the television wars: does TV make you smarter?

In last night's episode of "24," the White House and CTU (for those of you not watching, that's the fictitious Counter-Terrorism Unit) are trying to figure out how to get their hands on a Chinese nuclear scientist, who has been collaborating with the bad-guy terrorists who are fixing to detonate a nuclear warhead any moment now. The scientist has sought refuge in the Chinese consulate which, as any amateur diplomat knows, is considered Chinese territory even as it is located on American soil. Jack Bauer, AKA Kiefer Sutherland, moves in to capture the scientist (it is the judgment of those in the U.S. government that they cannot wait for China's premier to sort out the details) and the Chinese consul is killed in the raid.

This is not a good situation, of course, since we've just phoned them asking for the scientist's release—it's safe to say they've pretty much figured out who's behind the attack. The acting consul phones former president David Palmer—in charge of recovering the errant warhead—and demands to know what's going on. Palmer is an interesting character on the show—he's one of those idealized presidents, who is defined by doing the right thing and defying, er, "politics as usual." In short, he's a stand-up, good guy. So there's some tension when he picks up the phone to talk to the acting consul: after all, he just approved an action that could set off an international incident. What does he do?

He lies, of course.

There was a good deal of linking to Steven Johnson's provocative "Watching TV Makes You Smarter" (The New York Times Magazine, 24 April), and some passive dis/agreement, but not a good deal of analysis about the piece. (A noteworthy exception: Dana Stevens's—see, as well, her film writing at The High Sign—"Thinking Outside the Idiot Box," posted at Slate on Monday the 25th, where she pronounces Johnson's claims "deeply, hilariously bogus.") Johnson can be forgiven for asserting the far-fetched: after all, he has a book to flog.

OK: the book and the essay promise more than is delivered, but it doesn't mean that there's no good stuff in Johnson's scholarship. He highlights the character of contemporary television and compares it, favorably, to the golden era of TV (read: the television of our youth). He asserts an increasingly literary texture to the form, convincingly, I think: there is often specialized language and signs as well as a surprising amount of narrative dissociation at any given moment—our moorings are often undone. And then there's the widely quoted multithreadedness of "serious" teevee, too.

I'm heartened to hear my cherished reality television come in for thoughtful treatment: Johnson's observations on gaming culture and its applicability to "Survivor" or "The Apprentice" are novel and explain, in part, the interest of young men in the programs. (The social dimensions of these games—"Survivor" as office politics and the compression, in front of our very eyes, of the "The Bachelorette" mate-selection process—are rich and better-understood, even as they don't figure prominently in the author's thesis.) Finally, as illustrated in the vignette from "24" that opens this post, the sharp writing for even pulpy shows point to genuinely interesting and dramatic dilemmas, well-observed from the nitty-gritty of real life: don't politicians have to lie sometimes? All of this adds up to an entertaining artform that is far more complex than its detractors suppose: all they have to do is open their eyes and—ouch—engage their critical faculties.

See also: Kiss your television, from January.

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