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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

TV quality still has long way to go


After years of being cautioned by well-meaning friends and relatives that watching so much TV was going to rot my brain and leave me drooling into a bowl of tapioca while an “Alf” rerun flickered on my antique, 23-inch screen, I should be elated to hear from Steven Johnson that, on the contrary, it’s making my mind sharper.

Mine, yours, everybody’s.

Johnson expounds this theory in a section of his new book, “Everything Bad Is Good For You” (Riverhead Books, $23.95), about the alleged cognitive benefits of widely put-down pop-cultural pursuits – including playing video games, surfing the Internet and doing one’s patriotic duty to uphold the national TV-watching average of four hours daily.

I’m not elated, however. I’m skeptical. And while that could be a sign of my increased mental aptitude, I doubt it.

Johnson proposes a phenomenon he calls the “Sleeper Curve” – named for the 1973 Woody Allen movie, “Sleeper,” in which Allen’s character awakens from a 200-year cryogenic snooze to find scientists praising the nutritional virtues of deep fat and hot fudge while snickering at 20th century notions of “health” food such as wheat germ.

Where TV is concerned, Johnson bases his argument on a progression of shows that he traces to the 1981 arrival of “Hill Street Blues.”

Unlike the dramatic series that preceded it, he says, “Hill Street” was a “multithreaded” show. It required its viewers to keep track of multiple plots and character histories without salting the dialogue with information almost as obvious as flashing arrows onscreen that signal “bad guy” or “poignant moment.”

Building on the “Hill Street” foundation, Johnson continues, the creators of more recent series such as “ER,” “The West Wing,” “24” and “The Sopranos” purposely withhold information from scenes, forcing viewers to figure out initially confusing plot developments by patiently assessing the context.

We’re having to pay closer attention, Johnson argues, and in the process we get a more rigorous cognitive workout than we once did. In his view, even a “reality” show such as “Survivor,” in which viewers second-guess the contestants, tones up flabby synapses.

“The nature of the medium is such that television will never improve its viewers’ skills at translating letters into meaning, and it may not activate the imagination in the same way that a purely textual form does,” Johnson writes in “Everything Bad.”

“But for all the other modes of mental exercise associated with reading, television is growing increasingly rigorous. And the pace is accelerating.”

In a rewrite of the book’s TV chapter that appeared recently in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, he inched farther out on this particular limb: “I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good.”

Much as I would love to believe that “24” is like a “Six-Pack Abs” video for the brain, something tells me that Johnson may be getting his chicken and his egg a little mixed up.

Television programming, at least some of it, has gotten more demanding over the past 25 years. In preparation for reviewing Ving Rhames’ recent “Kojak” revival, I watched a couple of episodes of the Telly Savalas original, a critically acclaimed, award-winning show of the 1970s.

Man, were they plodding. You could do a crossword puzzle while watching them.

But most of today’s programming is only marginally more demanding than that of 25 years ago. Or 50.

Watching “The West Wing” or “Deadwood” obviously requires more concentration than watching “Baretta” did – or “Columbo,” to cite a better show – but the phenomenon Johnson is observing surely is just as much about TV finally catching up with its more demanding viewers.

In 1979, two years before “Hill Street” premiered, public TV stations in the United States aired a British miniseries based on John Le Carre’s espionage novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” that was as dense and challenging as the best of HBO’s finest current dramatic series.

The original, 1986 miniseries “The Singing Detective,” also British, still is without equal in narrative complexity. Both were hailed by critics as examples of what TV could do, how novelistic it could be.

If you’d care to go back even further, Patrick McGoohan’s “The Prisoner,” a mind-game-playing British series that became a cult favorite when CBS showed it in the late 1960s, still holds up.

Slowly, quietly, our television has caught up. And while it’s fair to suggest that a series such as “The X Files” is more demanding than “The Invaders” – or “The Simpsons” more nuanced than “Get Smart” – it can’t be forgotten that the explosion of cable channels and the accompanying fragmentation of the mass audience underpins the relative “success” of challenging shows that would have been ratings failures in the old TV universe.

Series that attract 14 million viewers make Nielsen’s Top 20 today. Twenty-five years ago, pulling 14 million viewers would get a show a third-week pink slip.

Our relationship with television was and is an evolving one. It’s a tango we do, testing each other to see where to turn, how deep to dip.

But “Sopranos” or no “Sopranos,” TV still isn’t asking us to dance as fast as we can.