Serious media criticism would seem to require thoughtfully wrestling with the content of today’s TV shows, movies and videogames. As Leo Bogart’s “Over the Edge” and Steven Johnson’s “Everything Bad Is Good for You” illustrate, actually taking the time to do that makes all the difference. While one book displays an impressive and in-depth engagement with pop culture, the other reads like it was written by someone who flipped through the dial one day and didn’t like what he saw.
Johnson’s premise is, at least in a mass-market book, highly original. He argues that, regardless of trends in content, the structure of modern media has become much more complex and mentally engaging. It’s counter-intuitive, but once he takes readers through a few examples, it makes perfect sense. Following “Lost” or “Arrested Development” or even “Survivor” takes a lot more brainpower than “Starsky & Hutch” or “Happy Days” ever did. There are many more interweaving plots with more complex characters and fewer “signposts” to help viewers who haven’t paid attention.
Ditto videogames. The stereotypical “slack-jawed” gamer seeking instant gratification is actually quite the opposite. Winning most vidgames requires intense concentration and lots of failed attempts before the player finally passes a level, only to be presented with another, even tougher challenge.
Johnson occasionally overplays his hand. His argument that seeing politicians on talkshows helps viewers understand a candidate’s “emotional IQ” hardly seems serious. Surely we can’t conclude that someone who gets nervous sitting down with Oprah wouldn’t make a good president. And his attempt to connect rising IQs (who knew?) to the complexity of pop culture is quite speculative — though he does point out that the growth of mass media certainly hasn’t made us stupider.
Rising IQs over the past 100 years, along with the fall in crime in the past decade, aren’t the kind of stats Leo Bogart wants to deal with. But “Over the Edge” is based primarily on anecdotes and second-hand descriptions, not evidence and analysis.
He starts with an interesting claim: that Hollywood’s obsession with youth is what has led to the growing amount of sex and violence in film and TV. As far as it goes, that argument is true, almost self-evidently.
It’s not so clear whether that’s a bad thing for our culture or for the entertainment business. Bogart only briefly touches on evidence about the harmful effects of long-term exposure to violence on TV. And while it’s clear he thinks Hollywood is too youth-obsessed, even the executives and advertising mavens he interviews have mixed views.
More fundamentally, because the book is based entirely on a random set of interviews Bogart did, along with his own observations, he fails to persuade readers that all trends point toward the sewer. Do studios intentionally coarsen their films to get a PG-13 or R in order to draw in teens and young adults? Several interviewees assert that’s true, and there are examples. But the fact that last year’s No. 1 movie, “Shrek 2,” was rated PG shows things aren’t so simple.
Even if there is more sex and violence, are things all bad? Bogart can’t answer that because he never truly engages a single film or TV show. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for instance, had its share of lust and gore, but it was also one of the most thoughtful TV shows ever about teen girls’ identities.
When he talks about vidgames, Bogart just looks ill informed. He gets numerous facts wrong, most amusingly when he writes about “Tom Clancy’s Junior Miss,” a supposedly gruesome game about young beauty pageant contestants. His source is an obviously satirical article by comedian David Cross. The game doesn’t exist.
One gets the sense that Bogart sits in his office reading articles and is so shocked — shocked! — by what the kids today are watching and playing that he felt compelled to write a whole book about a world of entertainment he doesn’t really understand.
Johnson thoughtfully engages the modern media and goes beyond the tired argument over whether Hollywood has gone “too far.” His book should make us rethink the way we judge popular culture.