Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Defense of Television

"Oh, I don't watch TV," she said in an annoyingly superior tone.

"Why?" I asked.

"That stuff rots your brain," she said, turning away to play with her smartphone.

If television rots your brain, then mine must be swiss cheese by now.  It is very sad to me that I've heard this sort of thing from so many people.  People seem to be unable to make the distinction between GOOD television and BAD television.  It makes me scared to think of what other broad generalizations they must make in their lives.  "Oh, this book has small text.  Books are hard to read!"  "Oh, this website says Hitler was right.  The internet is anti-semetic!"  "Oh, this Muslim is a suicide bomber.  Muslims are all terrorists!"  "Oh, this atheist is kind of a tool.  All atheists are evil!"  "This cereal tastes terrible.  FOOD IS BAD!"

But seriously, strawmans aside.  "TV rots your brain?"  Come on.  The number of times I have heard this exact argument, from otherwise very intelligent people, makes me very sad.  Many so-called "intellectuals" love to bash television to make sure they are clearly seen as better than the "lowest common denominator" that likes to sit down every friday night to watch the latest episode of their favorite TV show (or, time-shifted viewing, as is quickly becoming the norm).

Television comes in good and bad.  The worst of it is... not fun to talk about.  The best of it, though, can be truly compelling, engaging, and powerful, as can the best of all forms of entertainment.  Most TV falls somewhere in the middle.

It's true that reality television is on the rise, and dramatic serials are few and far between.  Reality TV can be pretty bad.  At best it takes the form of competition based shows.  At worst it is a gross mockery of what it is to be human, poking and prodding at narcissistic people to illicit the response that the public supposedly wants while at the same time managing to insult and degrade everything decent and honorable about our culture.

But, there are still plenty of amazing shows out there despite the prevalence of Reality TV.  Where I think TV as a medium truly shines is in long-form storytelling.  As far as filmed media goes, it really is superior at this kind of storytelling.  Movies are constrained by being able to be watched in one sitting, where TV has no such handicap.  This allows for complex character development, intricate plotting, and detailed world-building.  The best serialized dramas take advantage of this sense of history by creating stories that feel lived-in and complicated.  By the end of a long-running TV show, any seemingly simple story and be extremely powerful to a viewer who has followed along from the beginning.  This is a very beautiful way to tell a story.

Of course, not everything good on television is a serialized drama.  TV sitcoms have been consistently finding and inventing new ways to be funny for several decades.  Procedurals have been churning out murder mysteries on a weekly basis for quite some time, and while lacking in my most favorite of literary elements, complex characterization, have all but mastered the art of one-and-done storytelling.  Television is also the last refuge of storytelling through 2-D animation (in America, at least.)

People like what they like.  I'm certainly quite opinionated about what I think is GOOD television and what I think is BAD television.  Ultimately, though, it cannot be written off as all bad.  There are plenty of bad books out there, but there are also some truly fantastic ones.  The same goes for any medium: film, comics, theater, puppet shows, etc.

If something is entertaining, causes an emotional response, and fosters thought, it cannot be said to "rot your brain."

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