Sunday, May 30, 2010

"The Sleeper Curve does not mean Survivor will someday be viewed as our Heart of Darkness"

Johnson continues his argument that pop culture is becoming on average more complex instead of the perceived race to the bottom.  The rest of part 1 of the book focuses on pop culture in the forms of movies, the internet and TV.  He makes compelling arguments in all three cases but I liked his TV section the best and since this is my blog I'm going to discuss that section.

He splits the TV argument into 2 sections: traditional narrative TV shows with actors and a script and reality TV shows.  It's easier to make the argument that traditional narrative TV shows are becoming more complex.  He looks at theme of "multithreaded" stories, stories that follow multiple storylines and have multiple important characters such as The Sopranos, Lost, ER, and The West Wing.  It's not only the amount of threads a person has to keep straight while watching, the shows now lack the "narrative handholding" (74) shows used to feature.  TV shows force you to fill in the blanks and probe the show to understand the narrative, just as the video games force you to probe the worlds.  It takes more mental exercise to follow these complex stories than it does to follow a simpler show, such as Dragnet.

It doesn't take too much to go along with Johnson in his argument that dramas such as these are becoming more complex but it's his argument that reality TV is also more complex than TV shows of previous generations.  It's hard to really imagine a way that reality TV can be cognitively good for anyone.  When people think of pandering to the lowest common denominator reality TV is at the forefront of that argument.  But Johnson manages to make a convincing argument that even TV shows like Joe Millionaire have a cognitive benefit that other game shows lack.  I don't want this entry to be me just rehashing the arguments he makes in the book, but the argument I found most compelling is the idea that reality TV shows focus the audience to analyze people on these TV shows: why do they make the alliances they do, what did that look mean, etc.  Reality TV shows exercise the audiences autism quotient, or the ability to "read emotional cues, anticipating the inner thoughts and feelings of other people" (98).  One of the most interesting arguments Johnson makes centers around the Nixon-Kennedy debates, "where the guy with the best makeup always wins" (100).  Much is made about this debate and the dumbing down of the nation, where appearance is more important that the substance of what people say, but Johnson argues that those watching the debate on TV had access to extra emotional information that wasn't available to those who were simply listening.

"TV viewers...thought Nixon's sweating and five-o'clock shadow made him look shifty and untrustworthy...What if it wasn't Nixon's lack of makeup that troubled the TV watchers?  After all, Nixon did turn out to be shifty and untrustworthy in the end." (103)

So what do you think?  Is there some benefit to reality TV?  Are narrative TV shows getting more complex and engaging the audience more?

Title quote from page 132

Johnson, Steven.  Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.  Riverhead Books, New York.  2006.


  1. Good post. I would certainly agree that modern television can be as nuanced and complex as any good movie or, while being a different experience, a good book. A few narrative shows that I find to be fantastic are AMC's Breaking Bad, Showtime's Weeds and Dexter, HBO's Sopranos. I watch way more television than I should, but I think there's a case to be made for watching good television (I posted about this a few weeks ago on my blog). This looks like a good book, I'll have to get my hands on a copy!

  2. I absolutely recommend this book. Johnson makes compelling arguments that TV shows have grown in complexity, even over movies if only because a movie's 2-3 hour running time is much less than the 12 hour running time a TV series will have in a season.

    I remember your blog entry about TV (excellent post!) and there is definitely place for TV and books to coincide together, with neither being a brain drain.


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