Share this article

print logo


And now for a hearty breakfast -- an idea to feast on. It's a perfect one, in fact, to ingest as we all embark on the May Sweeps. It comes from Steven Johnson, whose book propounding it is called "Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter" (Riverhead, 238 pages, $23.95).

You say you're sick to death of every smug, self-righteous talking head in the world decrying the pop cultural weather system most of us slog through, whether we want to or not? You know who I'm talking about -- all the attention-hungry congress-folk, Sunday morning blabberpusses and ministers of propriety with tea-party gossip and finger-sandwich ethics.

Johnson's your man. Bless his existence. And buy his book. His is an idea whose time has come.

Some of us have been circling around it for a while but he's the first to hit it head on.

I'll let him tell it: "Where most commentators assume a race to the bottom and a dumbing down -- an increasingly infantilized society in George Will's words -- I see a progressive story: mass culture growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year. Think of it as a kind of positive brainwashing: the popular media steadily, but almost imperceptibly, making our minds sharper, as we soak in entertainment usually dismissed as . . . lowbrow fluff . . . the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less."

I'll leave what he says about games for others. On television "some narratives force you to do work to make sense of them, while others just let you settle into the couch and zone out. Part of that cognitive work comes from following multiple threads, often densely woven plot lines, and keeping them distinct in your head. But another part involves the viewers' 'filling in,' making sense of information that has been either deliberately withheld or deliberately left obscure."

His favorite examples are "24" and "The Sopranos." But think too of "House," "The West Wing," "Third Watch," "ER," "Deadwood," the "CSI" shows, even "Veronica Mars" and, yes, "Survivor."

The way we are routinely asked to watch these shows assumes a massive leap in intelligence over the very best that television offered 30 years ago.

Which was, if you ask me, "Harry-O" which the American Life TV Network (formerly The Good Life network) is now re-running every Monday at 9 p.m. and midnight. It is still a terrific TV show, without question. But the way it tells its stories is almost plodding, simplistic and rheumatic compared to even a sluggardly episode of "House" or "Deadwood" or "Veronica Mars."

Of course, it's often bursting with atmosphere, a current rarity.

But, on the other hand, you could argue that on current TV character development is not only being retained, there's a good deal more of it than there is on even the most sympathetic and subtle episode of "Harry-O." And that's true even on something like "Grey's Anatomy" where a patient will be introduced to us at 10:05 p.m. and be dead at 10:45 p.m., as one of only four ongoing plot lines that night. An enormous amount of cognitive ability is assumed.

A show like "Survivor," says Johnson, forces us to keep track of a variety of intersecting social relationships "in ways that would have been unimaginable on past game shows, where the primary cognitive skill tested was the ability to guess the price of a home appliance, or figure out the right time to buy a vowel. The trend toward increased social network complexity is not the exclusive province of reality television. Many popular television dramas today feature dense webs of relationships that require focus and scrutiny on the part of the viewer to just figure out what's happening on the screen."

If all of this came from movies (the films of Robert Altman), it has now made its way through television and back to movies, where it animates some of the best and most daring films around. Consider Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" and Paul Haggis' "Crash," opening Friday, the best new film by far to open so far this year.

Haggis came from television, that popular art stump-speaking and Bible-thumping pols love to call the source of all stupidity.

Uh-uh. Not by a long shot. Ask Steven Johnson. And while you're at it, enjoy the May Sweeps.