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.