This post is, in part, a response to my friend Ted Gonder’s recent post, “Is TV Worth Watching?” In part, it is a shameless defense of television as modern visual literature.
Like Ted, since going to college, I haven’t watched much television. I “was one of those people” who didn’t own a television; I was not self-righteous about it, nor did I engage in the self-referential humor particular to UChicago students about the volume of work they have to do that otherwise precludes them from watching TV. Like many UChicago students, I did quite a bit of extra-curricular reading (much to the detriment of my GPA), but when even Woody Allen’s contributions to the New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section got a bit too cerebral for me, I watched, among other shows, Mad Men.
Now, I do not mean to intimate that Mad Men, one of the most aesthetically pleasing, thoroughly well-researched, and decidedly pro-masculine television programs on the air, is otherwise unworthy of my attention. Rather, extremely well-done television provides an experience akin to reading well-done literary fiction. One empathizes with certain characters, embraces some, and reviles others. One effortlessly absorbs the periphery, those bits extraneous to plot but valuable to developing the aesthetics of the viewing experience, and in doing so one can marvel in the mimetic, artistic talent of the program’s writers, actors, and the behind-the-scenes people in the props and wardrobe departments. Television, and for that matter any variety of film-making, achieves what literature can’t. That which is in the shot’s background simply, without need for description, is. No valuable page-space need be expended; there is no risk of losing the reader’s attention by rattling off a laundry list of accoutrements and their particular details necessary to set the scene.
Well-done television programming, like well-done literature, may provide great insight into the human condition, poignant social commentary, or the simple pleasure of rediscovering the “real” world through a fictional representation thereof. To actively, critically search for these things conflates work and play. Doing so leads to the pretentious, pointy-headed, platitudinous commentary that pervades book reviews by Maureen Corrigan for NPR’s “Fresh Air” and class discussions in Advanced Placement English Literature courses, among other venues. One should not have to justify watching television, be it cinematic, well-acted drama or lowbrow, increasingly perverse (sur)reality television, as an intellectual activity. Other forms of entertainment, literature chief among them, never require such justification.
I did not set down to re-read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise for my intellectual betterment. I did so because it was read rather hastily in high school, and because I wanted to experience again the halcyon days of my adolescence, days whiled away in comfortable library chairs or idly spent on the beach dancing mentally to F. Scott’s sharp, frenetic Jazz Age style. Television, however, does not evoke such sentimentality.
It just so happens that Mr. Fitz dropped a lot of knowledge on me, or, rather, I revel privately in my insights into the meaning of college life, upon which I stumbled quite accidentally. And I’ve learned much about masculinity by parsing the behavior of Mad Men‘s Don Draper into two categories: that which I consciously emulate, and those errors which I find reprehensible, but catch myself committing on occasion. I did not go looking for these insights. I watch television and read fiction for entertainment, for that is what, arguably, such media were designed for. That increased emotional intelligence and self-awareness might result from its consumption is purely incidental. The fact that I’ve decoupled the need to find “teachable moments” in my media diet with the simultaneous need to occasionally be entertained allows me to savor said diet, and renders my “takeaways” more personal, less forced, and thus more significant.