How television got smart

Guest Column

When most talkshow hosts or bloggers or FCC Commissioners address the question of whether today’s media are or are not good for us, the underlying assumption is that entertainment improves us when it carries a healthy message. Shows that promote smoking or expose nipple rings are bad for us, while those that thunder against teen pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role in society. Judged by that morality play standard, the story of popular culture over the past 50 years is a story of steady decline.

But there is another way to assess the social virtue of pop culture, one that looks at media as a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons. Beneath all the violence and obscenity, a quiet revolution has been building over the past 30 years, with mass culture demanding more focus, more critical engagement, with each passing year.

The assumption that popular culture is creating a dumbed-down, instant gratification society is completely wrong. It’s making us smarter and more engaged, not catering to our base instincts.

This trend is evident in mass cultural experiences like videogames and the Internet, but it is also a crucial part of modern television. Think of the dense, intersecting plotlines of “The Sopranos,” “Arrested Development,” or “Lost.” Think of the speed and technical detail in the dialogue of “ER” or “The West Wing.” Think of the sheer number of characters you have to track, and the feuds you have to follow, in reality shows like “The Apprentice” or “Survivor.”

Go back and watch the most complex shows on air 20 years ago — “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Cheers” — and you’ll find genuinely entertaining shows that nonetheless made their audience do less mental labor to make sense of them. The jokes may be cruder today and the bloodshed more vivid, but the storytelling form itself has grown decidedly more complex.

Consider the way today’s television interacts with just this one faculty of human intelligence: our ability to monitor and recall the social relationships around us. Like many forms of emotional intelligence, the ability to analyze and recall the full range of social relationships in a large group can be just as reliable a predictor of professional success as your SAT scores or your college grades.

The most successful reality shows in recent years exercise precisely these cognitive muscles. When we watch “Survivor” or “The Apprentice,” we are implicitly building these social network maps in our heads, a map not so much of plotlines but of attitudes: Nick has a thing for Amy, but Amy may just be using Nick; Bill and Kwame have a competitive friendship, and they both think Nick is being used by Amy; no one trusts Omarosa, except for Kwame, but Troy really doesn’t trust Omarosa.

Reality shows tax that social intelligence in ways that would have been unimaginable in most gameshows on the air a generation ago, where the primary cognitive skill tested was the ability to correctly guess the price of a home appliance, or figure out the right time to buy a vowel.

Traditionally, the most intricate social networks on television have come in the form of soap operas, with their affairs and betrayals and tortured family dynamics. So let’s take as a representative example an episode from “Dallas” from 1978. The social network at the heart of Dallas is ultimately the Ewing family: two parents, three children, two spouses. Following the episode requires almost no thought: the scenes are slow enough that the modern television fan is likely to find the storylines sluggish and obvious.

Now consider an episode of the hit Fox series, “24” and you’ll see that something profound has happened to the social complexity of the television drama over the past 30 years. The social world of 24 is closer to the scale of a small village, with four rival clans and dozens of links connecting them. Watch an isolated episode of “24” and you’ll be utterly baffled by the events, because they draw on such a complex web of relationships, almost all of which have been defined in previous installments of the series.

The modern viewer who watches “Dallas” on DVD will be bored by the content — not just because the show is less salacious than today’s soap operas (which it is by a small margin) but because the show contains far less information in each scene.

This longterm trend applies not just to soaps like “Dallas” but also to procedurals like “Hill Street Blues.”

When “Hill Street Blues” first introduced the multi-threaded serious drama to primetime more than 20 years ago, the first test screenings of the show suggested that it was just too complex for a mass audience, and indeed the show had less than blockbuster ratings for most of its existence, despite the critical raves. Fast forward two decades, and programs with far more complex narratives regularly appear in the Nielsen top 20 and sell millions of DVDs. That’s because the mass culture has been steadily training our minds to follow increasingly complicated stories.

The popular culture may not be showing us the righteous path. But it is making us smarter.

Johnson is the author of Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. This is adapted from his book, “Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Pop Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter,” out from Riverhead Books in May.