Talking Television

Our favorite shows keep getting better


I’ve noticed recently that talk over dinner with friends and family always seems to settle on a discussion of one or more of their favorite television series: Boardwalk Empire and Enlightened on HBO, Mad Men on AMC, Homeland and Ray Donovan on Showtime, and House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black on Netflix are just a sampling of the shows that are mulled over and analyzed. Many of my friends must be camped in front of the TV continuously to be able to talk so knowledgeably about what’s on it.

It used to be that television was a guilty pleasure. If we watched a lot of it, we kept it to ourselves. But with the advent of these series a new attitude has been born: TV is culture, even, in some cases, high culture. HBO series like The Sopranos and The Wire have been called Shakespearean.

There are some drawbacks to television’s newfound respectability.

• Most of the best shows are on premium channels, available only to a relatively affluent audience, which further divides the public in ways that our education system already does.

• The appearance of realism that TV generates can make the melodramatic scenario seem like the everyday one, creating unwarranted skepticism about institutions and social systems. I wonder how the representation of politics and government in shows like House of Cards, Boss, and Homeland may affect some viewers.

• Finally, the allure of these shows contributes to a decline in reading. The more one likes television, the less one is liable to have patience for books. Television is also addictive, and for all the good TV out there, there’s lots of mediocre and exploitative TV that can hook a viewer.

Still, the positives attached to the new television culture balance and may outweigh the negatives. These shows do encourage public discourse. Great books have long represented a core set of shared ideas and values. Perhaps we are now creating a new canon, through television, that will serve something of the same unifying purpose.

The best shows also challenge our critical faculties. Almost 10 years ago, the social critic Steven Johnson wrote Everything Bad Is Good for You in which he argued that television was becoming more and more intellectually challenging. He noted that the plot lines of many TV series were complicated and required the ability to fill in and interpret on a high level—a trend that has continued since Johnson wrote his book.

Many of these shows dramatically represent the “other.” The sustained nature of current series television makes it different from either movies or TV series in the past, when each episode was self-contained. The best shows now develop character over time and engage us on a more sophisticated emotional level as a result. This encourages sympathy or at least understanding for characters in situations very different from our own. Think about how poor people who deal drugs were represented in The Wire or how women in prison are represented in Orange Is the New Black. These detailed portraits deepen our sympathy because we come to feel that we know the characters—precisely what good books traditionally did. But to read books that truly reflect a complex sense of character requires a high level of literacy and a comfort with difficult language that many people do not have. Television doesn’t require that sort of prep work.

This line of thought reminds me of Vachel Lindsay’s idealistic view of the then-new medium of movies in his 1915 work, The Art of the Moving Picture.  Lindsay argued that film held enormous artistic potential, capable of reaching a mass audience. Unfortunately, his vision of a brave new world founded on elevated movie values did not come to pass. When television arose, it too showed promise but then succumbed to commercial interests. Now, however, we have reached a point where it may be possible, given the way cable TV is financed, to realize some of the goals that Lindsay saw for movies. In the shows I mentioned we see that it is possible to examine complex subjects with subtlety, humor, and intelligence, and to create characters that extend our sympathies in new directions.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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