Wait — TV can be good for you?
Television today requires some serious attention span.
Despite decades of warnings about the boob tube frying our brains, good television requires a longer attention span and deeper thinking than our other daily digital interactions.
The texts, tweets, emails, and YouTube clips that call for our eyes, ears, and thumbs tally up enormous swatches of our time, but each of these micro communiqués flares and fades faster than a matchstick. The best television dramas today are slow burning. Consider the television dramas nominated for Golden Globes, from Homeland, Damages, and Downton Abby to Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and Mad Men.
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Unexpectedly, and contrary to most of TV history, the draw of these shows is in their long narratives, unpredictable characters, and complex storylines. They demand sensitivity to nuance, and pique thought even when the screen is off between airtimes.
Who would have guessed television would require attention span?
Viewers are strung from one episode to the next not by cheap-trick cliffhangers but by the development of characters as they evolve through season-long plot lines, often teaching lessons along the way.
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In Newsroom, another cast of hyper-intelligent Aaron Sorkin characters can explain the debt ceiling while being witty and flirty (preferably, while walking somewhere), and between the lines begs a re-evaluation of modern news ethics. In Showtime’s The Big C, Laura Linney’s character has been on a journey to find meaning and humor in the face of death. Soul-searching questions with no simple answers have even been at the heart of shows in the comedy genre. In a series that’s proven as gut-busting as it is mind-expanding, Louie CK has invited viewers to consider a character on an imaginative albeit troubled path to fulfillment that’s nothing less than spiritual.
The best television shows of today run more like novels and “provide a kind of through-line that’s missing from our fragmented lives,” said author Alissa Quart in a New York Times editorial ("The Thinking Person's Entertainment") yesterday.
Fragmentation isn’t always the culture-killing, neuron-frying phenomenon it’s feared to be, by the way. It gets a bad name from those concerned we’ll become incapable of putting together a thought more than 140 characters long, but cutting up media and communications into smaller pieces has demanded that we get things right in fewer words and less time. Text can be a blessing when you just want to tell a talkative friend “c u @ 8:30,” and if more albums were worth listening to from front to back we wouldn’t need to cherrypick individual songs for $0.99. Besides, 140 characters is all you can take of some people.
But byte-sliced life is not conducive to long thoughts, and interacting in the well-wired world leaves many of us with what Quart calls “a shared hunger for continuing, connected conversation and communication.” Shows that we anticipate and think about can be enjoyed in extended, uninterrupted sittings, much in the same way we read a book chapter. We can sit down and absorb them at a time of our choosing thanks to streaming, DVR’s, and TiVo. If you do your watching on a tablet or other portable screen, you might just as easily pluck a TV show off a virtual bookshelf as an eBook. When the content is high quality, the distinction between media starts to vanish.
So put on your thinking cap, and flip on the tube.
Photo: Newton Daly/Getty Images
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