TV is good for you. No, really.
: Steven Johnson’s new book is about a subject dear to my heart: Everything Bad Is Good For You starts arguing in its subtitle: “How today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter.” An excerpt appears in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. I got to read a version of the book a few months ago and it’s damned good.
In the book, Johnson says that TV — and other popular culture — is more complex than it used to be and challenges us to think; it makes us smarter. I’m not sure which way the cause-and-effect really works. I believe that popular culture is just now catching up to us and that is because all our tools of choice — remote control, cable box, TiVo — are forcing popular culture to chase us, to get as smart as we are. In any case, TV is getting smarter and both TV and we are smarter than conventional wisdom ever held.
Ever since I was a TV critic starting in the mid-’80s, I’ve argued that given a chance to watch good shows, we do; that the ratings prove Americans do have good taste; and that TV is only getting better. Steven turns it around and adds one more notch: TV makes us better.
For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ”masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ”24” episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less…..
… [Y]ou have to avoid the tendency to sentimentalize the past. When people talk about the golden age of television in the early 70’s — invoking shows like ”The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and ”All in the Family” — they forget to mention how awful most television programming was during much of that decade.
Ditto all the slathering over the other alleged Golden Age of the Vaudevillian ’50s. TV keeps getting better.
In pointing out some of the ways that popular culture has improved our minds, I am not arguing that parents should stop paying attention to the way their children amuse themselves. What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food and what is genuinely nourishing. Instead of a show’s violent or tawdry content, instead of wardrobe malfunctions or the F-word, the true test should be whether a given show engages or sedates the mind.
It’s all about respect, really: The respect producers have for the audience in producing good shows; the respect commentators have for the public in recognizing that, contrary to popular wisdom, popular taste is good; the respect the audience has for itself.