TV: The Renewal of Intelligence

After many decades of complaining that TV is rotting our brains, and many (many) seasons of sitcoms, adult cartoons, and trashy reality TV, we’ve finally seemed to turn a corner when it comes to our beloved home screens. However you like your TV (live, DVR-ed, streamed, on-the-go), the fact remains that what we’re watching today is significantly different, and I’d argue improved, than what we were watching 10, 5, even 2 years ago.

Of late, many TV series and broadcast dramas that premier on syndicated channels are offering a more selective, dare we say, more intelligent array of content. We’ve heard TV is the new cinema, and if we surveyed the landscape ample examples arise. Mad Men, Newsroom, House of Cards, True Detective… to name a few on specialty channels. Suits, How to Get Away with Murder, White Collar, House – more mainstream but still steps away from the usual couch-friendly sitcoms that flooded prime time slots in the 90s and early 2000s.

Part of this widespread popularity and repeated success seems to be derived from their common theme: a plot line centered around an intelligence-driven skill set. Law & Order, CSI, and others like them were initial attempts at this genre – but held on to a slow, long-form, soap-opera feel that is thankfully missing in popular content today. Let’s look at a team of doctors who diagnose illnesses and identify the not-so-medical cause, lawyers who find brilliant and often less-than ethical solutions in airtight cases, and ex-criminals that piece together forensic clues and decode the cryptic psyche of the fraudulent, to name a few. All these complex skills distilled down into pithy language and quick plot twists that are just-difficult-enough so that you end the show feeling part of an elite, discerning audience, with a nose slightly turned up. Whether you then switch back to Family Guy or Keeping Up with The Kardashians, is irrelevant. In that moment as the credits roll to some wonderfully apt indie tune, you’re reeling in the deliberate and stimulating triumphs of Don Draper, Annalise Keating or Frank Underwood.

Let’s have a round of applause for shows that make you feel intelligent, entertained in a way that requires your participation, and disallows you from sitting there, trance-like, staring into an alternate universe. In reflecting on these strides in TV content, it becomes clear that the mass audience’s interests are evolving; we are shaping ourselves into a more discerning group with standards we want, no demand, to be met. Granted, we’re not there yet, but we’re moving towards a new, intelligent consumer of TV. 

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2 thoughts on “TV: The Renewal of Intelligence

  1. Milaap Mehta says:

    I don’t know if you can say that even though there is more intelligent, thought-provoking TV, which I definitely agree with, that the spread of comparitvely ‘stupid’ TV is irrelevant. Shows like The Kardashians are representative of the culture of the celebrity where we all fixate on these celebrities lives, wanting to know all the new gossip. It’s become a sort of dependence that in it’s grandiosity, is almost negating the effect of the new, more developed ‘intelligent TV’. If you compare the landscape of TV of old, there is more diversity in terms of the intelligence of shows now, but on average, with the spread of reality TV largely, I think that there is a uniform standard that’s been sustained through the years on TV. I just think that there is more intelligent, but also more stupid, which on average hasn’t represented a wholesale change, even though many facets of TV have changed.

  2. Ashna Shah says:

    I think the point I’m arguing is that although trash TV exists (and if you look at 20 years of TV, it has definitely grown in volume and popularity), it’s no longer trending, no longer on the up and up. If you look more narrowly at the past 2-5 years of TV, the popularity of what I’m calling “intelligent TV” is now increasing to almost mainstream levels – more people want to watch it, on specialty channels like AMC, HBO, etc as well as larger networks like ABC, FX, USA, etc.

    And that was never the case before. Trash TV and mediocre content traditionally crowded primetime (Friends, Cheers, etc) while high brow/intelligent TV (The Wire, Law & Order, etc) were sidelined as more niche – targeting a smaller, more selective audience. It only made sense back then – there were fewer channels, less air time, so you wanted to choose the common denominator to get maximum ratings. But now, with fragmented TV viewing, “intelligent TV” is increasingly popular and even commonplace – partly due to more choice, and partly due to higher expectations from all entertainment.

    I’m predicting that the mass audience (majority of mainstream viewers) will soon expect that caliber of content in every genre. Granted that to some degree, with certain audiences, trash TV will always be popular, consumers will continue to crave celebrity news, and there will always be myriad options for viewers who want it… but I think we’re looking at the beginning of it’s end. There’s too much good content to choose from for bad content to survive!

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