Get Smart


In The New York Times Magazine, Steven Johnson argues that TV today rewards intelligence like never before:

Consider the cognitive demands that televised narratives place on their viewers. With many shows that we associate with "quality" entertainment—"The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Murphy Brown," "Frasier"—the intelligence arrives fully formed in the words and actions of the characters on-screen. They say witty things to one another and avoid lapsing into tired sitcom cliches, and we smile along in our living rooms, enjoying the company of these smart people. But assuming we're bright enough to understand the sentences they're saying, there's no intellectual labor involved in enjoying the show as a viewer. You no more challenge your mind by watching these intelligent shows than you challenge your body watching "Monday Night Football." The intellectual work is happening on-screen, not off.

But another kind of televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties.

He makes a compelling argument, though he ignores some of the most demanding programs on television (Deadwood, The Wire) and lavishes praise on one of the most heavy-handed (The West Wing). But if you want to argue that TV in general is getting smarter, I suppose you'd do better to cite a middlebrow hit than a smart cult show. (On a similar note, he asserts that today's reality shows demand more thought than yesterday's lowbrow equivalents, and makes an interesting argument that the reality genre has been influenced by video games.)

We can all pick at details that Johnson might have gotten wrong (the comments section is open!), but I'm glad to see the major media at least recognizing the smartification of American pop entertainment. 10 or 15 years ago, Newsweek ran a story on how "dumb" popular culture had purportedly gotten, a claim it tried to back up by citing what were actually some of the era's sharpest satires: Not only was the reporter upset with Beavis and Butt-head, but the cover illustration included a headshot of Bart Simpson. Maybe the press is getting smarter, too.

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  1. He also forgot the new “Battlestar Galactica.”

  2. Johnson is correct that the plot twists of some television shows are quite complex and require cognitive work to fully follow (say the plot twists in your average detective show). And any assumption that most people in today’s world would be reading and discussing … say Shakespeare … if not watching tv are absurd (a society of course already adapted to t.v. viewing). They would probably end up doing things that are *even less* cognitivly stimulating at least on the surface.

    However, some arguments against t.v. are of the “medium is the message” type rather than a critique of content. They either focus on how aspects of television are distruptive to complex cognitive thought (similar to Gato’s critique of the education system). Or they get absoultely reductive about it and focus on the brainwaves produced (and extrapolate far and wide and from such (accurate?) primary data).

  3. not…El Gato? He’s legendary!

  4. No wonder I’m stupid! I threw out my TV in 1971.

  5. The sitcoms he mentioned don’t require more from the audience than the Jack Benny Show, The Honeymooners, Make Room for Daddy, I Love Lucy or the Dick Van Dyke Show.

    …I think Syd Caesar’s Your Show of Shows expected more from the audience than most sitcoms do today.

    I think the cop shows of yesteryear were Westerns, and the typical western, from Bonanza to the Big Valley, Gunsmoke and Rawhide, had as much of a plot as cop shows do today, I think. I don’t think you could shoot an episode of the Wild Wild West in such a way that a general audience today would understand what was going on.

    A multitude of channels has allowed for some targeted shows, but those are the exception rather than the rule. …and the good ones tend to die prematurely. Homicide died while Nash Bridges marched on; Farscape died amidst the birth of a new Star Trek series. The later a Star Trek episode was shot, from whichever series, the more time the characters spend explaining to the audience what the characters are doing as they’re doing it. That didn’t happen in black & white Lost in Space episodes or even in Space: 1999. If you couldn’t figure the plot out–tough luck. It sure as hell didn’t happen in the Twilight Zone

    …I’ve heard this argument in regards to music in the past–that multi-track recording was creating a generation of harmonic geniuses. I don’t buy it. I might buy that blogging, e-mail, etc. has made the American public a more literate bunch, but I’d have to see some evidence. At what grade level are they writing the LA Times now?

  6. P.S. Get Smart was one of the best television shows ever.

  7. He didn’t mention much in the way of sitcoms, but he really should have pointed to Arrested Development to support his thesis.

    This show has *tons* of interwoven plot threads, lots of very subtle humor, and it can be quite raunchy. It’s far and away more sophisticated than anything from the ‘glory days’ of TV.

    Unfortunately AD doesn’t have much of an audience, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s very intellectually demanding of its viewers.

  8. My roommate never missed an episode of Beavis and Butthead. I even sat through their movie. As far as I’m concerned, they got old after thirty seconds and never redeemed themselves. They only had one joke (heh heh heh heh) and never approached “smart” or even “satire”. The B&B spin-off ‘Daria’ on the other hand was very smart. Unlike everything else on MTV, it couldn’t possibly have been written by the junior-high detention class (any fifteen seconds of any episode is convincing on this count).

    As far as ‘shows require more thinking now than they use to’, I’m not buying it. There has always been well written entertainment that requires you pay attention. In addition to what’s been mentioned above I’ll add, ‘The Muppet Show’, quite possibly the most well made television of all time.

    I also contend that the best cognitive TV is found at CSPAN and PBS. Not that there isn’t garbage there as well, but it’s where the very best TV is produced.

  9. “This show has *tons* of interwoven plot threads, lots of very subtle humor, and it can be quite raunchy. It’s far and away more sophisticated than anything from the ‘glory days’ of TV.”

    …So if it’s raunchy, it’s sophisticated?

    I don’t wanna pick a fight here, but Arrested Development is about as subtle as Lancelot Link. I like Arrested Development, but it isn’t subtle. …and I’m not so sure the plots are so sophisticated either.

    Look, I’m not going to tell you that there aren’t good shows and good scripts on television, or that every script from the ol’ days is better than every script now. If you want to point to some old shows that had rotten scripts, I’d point to Green–I can’t believe it’s in re-runs–Acres. What an awful show! The plot stinks, the acting stinks–so what? That doesn’t mean there weren’t other good shows on at the time. (Although the 60’s were a hard time for televison and film both I think.)

    …when people programmed television back in the circa 50’s, they made assumptions about the sophistication of their audience just as programmers do today. It looks to me like the guys in the ol’ days had a higher opinion of their audience than programmers do today. …I suppose this may be a function of the television having been recently introduced; maybe not everyone could afford a television when they first came out–I don’t know. At any rate, I don’t see much in the way of evidence that audiences or television plots are more sophisticated now.

    …I would also argue that the average episode of Arrested Development has more characters than sub-plots, just like The Simpsons, The Waltons, The Big Valley, The Brady Bunch, Taxi, Hill Street Blues, Father Knows Best, M*A*S*H, Eight is Enough, etc.

  10. I think a lot of it might just be a virtuous cycle, where as television becomes more respectable, even prestigious, TV attracts better writers, who write better TV, et cetera. As recently as two decades ago, television scriptwriting was largely percieved as hack work, suitable only for people who couldn’t make it writing movies (which, in turn, was a profession for people who couldn’t do “real” writing).

    Now, I think people realize that TV writing can be serious, and damned good, and talented writers looking for an outlet are more likely to seriously consider feeding the idiot box. And that’s just the ones already in the market – with the advent of internet-enabled fan culture, and the resultant popularity of fan fiction, we’ll soon be at a point where a good share of a generation of writers effectively cut their teeth writing spec scripts. As someone who’s moving to LA in two months to try and make it as a screen scribe, I can’t say I’m looking forward to even more competition, but as someone who watches and enjoys good TV, I couldn’t be happier.

  11. I don’t wanna pick a fight here, but Arrested Development is about as subtle as Lancelot Link.

    I’ve never seen LL, but I really do think AD is subtle. First, unlike many sitcoms, there’s no laugh track. Second, much of what Michael and his mother say is very understated, but very funny. There’s very little punch in those punchlines. (Sure, GOB and Buster are slapstick.)

    As for raunch, the author of the article claimed that, while modern shows are more violent and sexy, perhaps we shouldn’t be judging their worth (negatively) according to those standards. AD is yet another example of that.

    And having watched the first season in quick succession, I feel very confident in saying that there are lots of plot lines — but really not that many characters! Many of the jokes are only funny when you know the previous thread that is being alluded to — maybe this is why the show has had trouble catching on. In any case, the show asks the viewer to remember lots of old happenings in order to get the joke.

  12. First, unlike many sitcoms, there’s no laugh track.

    And no laughs either, if you ask me. Count me among the indifferent masses where Arrested Development is concerned. I appreciate their keeping Jeffrey Tambor off the dole, but I’ve never even been tempted to smile by this show.

  13. Everyone wants to believe that their pet show is smart.

    Including the brain-damaged schmuck who watches According to Jim

  14. Arrested Development is about the only reason to turn on the boob tube anymore. As clever as it can be, it is still not thinking material. I still have to classify it as ‘turn off the brain and be entertained’. That fullfills(sp) a need, we men anyway need to recharge our dopamine receptors periodically. X-Files was as close to a ‘thinking’ show as I watched ( I am unfamiliar with most of the above shows in this thread ) but, again, I would still classify that as ‘T.O.T.B.A.B.E.’.

    There is some programming on Discovery, History, TLC, Cable News, even PBS which you have to engage a bit, think, and form an opinion. Some of this can be ‘smart’, but a lot could also be classified as ‘brainwashing’. But still, you have to think to separate the facts from the spin.

  15. Gotta agree with Ken Shultz.

    The Cone of Silence is sheer, unadulterated, genius.

  16. This entire theory cries out for an application of Sturgeon’s Law. When we only had 3 or 4 networks offering programming, TV may have seemed more of a vast wasteland than a discriminating viewer of today would put up with. When one has 8 skillion channels to flip through, even the 10% that isn’t crud can be too much tube for one boob. But don’t forget that back in the day one could opt for Omnibus or Playhouse 90 instead of the Friday Night Fights or pro wrestling.


  17. Family Guy rules.

  18. Happy Jack: “The Cone of Silence is sheer, unadulterated, genius.”


  19. Stevo-

    The cone of silence was used for secret communications between agents in Get Smart. The joke being that the echo caused by two people conversing under a large inverted wok rendered speech incomprehensible.

    Of course, when Max and the Chief were travelling, they had to use the “portable cone of silence”, two connected deep-sea diving helmets.

    You had to be there. 🙂

  20. What?? What was that again??

    (Actually, I was there. 🙂 )

  21. I think Stevo was making a joke. But you missed it by that much.

  22. I wonder how much credit Babylon 5 should receive for pioneering the sort of television as described in the article.

    Its the first show I can remember on American TV, outside of some soaps, which was multithreaded without tons of exposition or flashing arrows and had a fairly well-definied arc.

  23. I wonder what to think about the claim that media today requires more thought outta the viewer. On the one hand, as Sir Robert says, most TV is ‘T.O.T.B.A.B.E.’. The same could be also be said of supposedly sophisticated means of entertainment like books and plays. I mean, how often do you read a book and try to guess what will happen next, versus just passively enjoying what happens? On the other hand, the internet really is interactive. With things like blogs, most of the fun comes in hitting up the comments section, which in turn requires you to turn on your brain, figure out your opinion, and commit it to the electronic page. As Johnson says in the article, conventionally clever media has a tendency to be like ‘Fraiser’– sure the jokes are kinda well thought out, but once you hear them and figure it out, that’s it, the thinking is over. All the hard work was done by the guys who wrote the script. The work of the audience is relatively small. Whereas with blogs, phase one is figuring out what’s being said, phase two is figuring out what you think about it, and phase three (optional) is commenting on what you’ve figured out.

    Anyhow, my take on it all is that blogs, in spite of heralding the destruction of News Media As We Know It, are for the most part a positive development for the promotion of thinking by the masses.

    Now, as to whether we’re going to end up liking what it is the masses think up?

  24. Come now. You’re not going to suggest that something like “No soup for you!” is more creative than K.A.O.S.

    Ninety-nine percent of comedy today is just a bunch of stand-ups re-hashing their lame acts. The acting is as wooden as a cigar store Indian.

    Anything with Buck Henry associated with it is miles beyond any dreck on tv today.

    Next you’ll try to tell me that Dick van Dyke tripping over an ottoman was smarter than “would you believe…” I beg to differ! :)))))

  25. Beavis & Butthead was great simply for all of the GWAR references.


  26. “Next you’ll try to tell me that Dick van Dyke tripping over an ottoman was smarter than “would you believe…” I beg to differ!

    Did you see the episode where Dick wakes up and his head is a head of cabbage?

    …Didn’t you ever watch Alan Brady tear into chrome-domed Mel? What about Buddy and Sally! huh? …What about Buddy!

  27. TV is the opiate of the people.


  28. Missed by that much…

  29. Maxwell: Sorry about that.

  30. TDvDS could be very clever. Remember the “walnut” episode?

    Besides, MTM in capri pants was very nice to look at.


  31. Airwaves used to be the only thing out there, so any show had to be engineered to be moderately appealing to everyone and offensive to no one. A more certain guarantee of slapstick carrying the day, I can’t imagine. You can’t be smart and completely uncontroversial.

    We aren’t there anymore. Give me McNulty’s drunken binges, or give me death!

  32. My it’s because I’m was 10 years old at the time, but I alway thought Mission Impossible was the most complicated show on television.

  33. The holy troika of Joss Whedon shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly) were all-above average in intelligence.


  34. I finally saw The Office for the very first time this weekend. Now I’m a fan. Smart-funny, and all the better for not having a laugh track.

  35. The top of my ‘smart TV’ list would have to be Deadwood. It takes effort to even follow the dialog, which sounds very Shakespearean in a profane way and is even commonly written in iambic pentameter. The plots are deep, the characters devious, and there’s always several levels of machination going on. It often takes a couple of viewings to piece together everything that happened in a given episode.

    Fantastic television. Best show I’ve seen in years.

  36. I think there is more of everthing. Yes, there is a raft of good shows lately. But most of what the networks run, and cable for that matter, is still garbage: witness the enduring popularity of mindless reality shows, awful 24 hours news, infomercials, bad movies with all the good parts cut out, etc.

    Watching “24” may keep the brain sharp, but watching “The Bachelor” just rots it.

  37. I’ve never seen LL, but I really do think AD is subtle. First, unlike many sitcoms, there’s no laugh track.

    The real innovation of Arrested Development is that it’s the first sitcom without a laugh track that still feels like it’s got a laugh track. It’s a very heavy-handed show, and after three tries I still haven’t found it funny.

  38. And any assumption that most people in today’s world would be reading and discussing … say Shakespeare … if not watching tv are absurd (a society of course already adapted to t.v. viewing).

    Of course, the idea that it takes much mental effort to understand Shakespeare’s work (aside from the effort required to translate the archaic speech patterns) is itself a bit absurd.

  39. Hey, even Shakespeare wrote scenes full of slapstick and dirty innuendo to please the groundlings. I’m sure some in the expensive seats liked those, too.


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