The problem with television isn't the medium itself but the way we choose to watch it. ♦
Welcome to the parental brag that will never happen.
Instead, parents are far likelier to brag about their children’s successes with more highbrow, traditionally academic activities such as reading—an activity our society has always heralded as one of the noblest of intellectual pursuits—and, of course, there is some reasoning behind raising books above watching television. Reading is at its core an intellectually stimulating activity. It engages both the creative and analytical brains. It promotes thought, logic, and rationalism. It also inspires, delights, and confuses. Reading can simultaneously transport us to new, exciting realms and deeply ground us in what is true in our own lives. None of which has been traditionally, or at least automatically, associated with the rapid consumption of filmed entertainment.
However, is the competition between books and television as simple as we make it out to be? Is there only ever negative cognitive functioning associated with the activity of watching television? Are books always more intellectually or literarily stimulating than television? The truth of the matter is that television, if engaged in a certain critical way, can provide just as much mental stimulation as books in certain areas typically associated with reading. Essentially, TV isn’t making us dumber. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to.
Just as a book must be read in order to be understood, a television show can be read and understood on a literary level. The argument that television is making us dumber might be true to the extent that a viewer watches television passively and can certainly watch simply as a mindless form of entertainment, without thinking deeply about what is going on under the surface. However, that same person could instead choose to engage in the more subtle storytelling techniques of the show and thus create for themselves a more intellectually stimulating experience.
At the core of both books and television shows is storytelling. As new generations continue to get hooked on Harry Potter books and the sitcom Friends alike, there must be some commonality between the two mediums that continues to drive readership and viewership. In short, both works tell stories which captivate us.
There are many components to effective storytelling, including a compelling narrative, realistic characters, and universal themes. All of these aspects of story present themselves equally in quality novels and quality television shows. Thus, in order to fully experience and appreciate them, an audience engages in a similar literary level of reading (or can) in both mediums and the shared characteristics among these two types of story consumption make both equally valid literary pursuits.
First off, both television and novels are character-driven mediums. In order for a work of fiction—whether for the screen or the page—to be successful, it must feature compelling characters. Interesting characters fascinate us, and we seek to understand them by asking intelligent questions about them. If Rory Gilmore is such a level-headed, intelligent person, then why does she allow herself to lose her virginity to the married Dean? Does Lady Macbeth act solely out of a desire for personal gain, or is she possessed by demonic spirits? These characters are complex and complicated, they have distinct personalities, yet they also act in ways which surprise or sometimes frustrate us. Effective characters make mistakes and thereby draw us into the drama of their lives.
Seeking to understand these intricately-designed characters opens the door for us to better understand our own lives. Entertainment at its best serves as a metaphor for life. Every episode and every chapter immerses readers in the lives of fictional characters in a way that invites us not only to think about their lives but apply similar thinking to our own. Haven’t we all imagined ourselves living in the New Girl loft, putting ourselves in the same ridiculous situations and wondering how we would get out of them? Or waking up a giant beetle and dealing with the ensuing personal, professional, and familial complications? When the fictional circumstances of stories on both page and screen are grounded in truthful humanity, we the readers are invited into an experience that is both outwardly critical and personally reflective.
Let me be clear: I am not advocating for the replacement of books with television. They are separate mediums for a reason; each can achieve heights the other cannot, therefore making both of their existences important to the artistic and intellectual world. However, their pursuits are not as mutually exclusive as we may make them seem.