Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mensa chairman issues a guide to smart television

In 1961, Newton N. Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a speech in which he referred to television as a “vast wasteland.”

Ever since, many intelligent people — and not a few people who just think they’re intelligent — have harbored a prejudice against TV.

But now at least one officially smart person has dared to come out of the closet and admit he loves television.

Mensa International Chairman Jim Werdell recently named his list of the 10 smartest TV shows of all time.

Some, like Carl Sagan’s science documentary series “Cosmos” and the game show “Jeopardy,” are obvious picks. Well, except during the “Jeopardy” celebrity tournament. Celebrities can be pretty stupid.

Three of Werdell’s other choices are also favorites of mine: “House,” the original “CSI” — please spare me “CSI: Miami” and David Caruso’s wooden “acting” — and “Boston Legal.”

And then there is Werdell’s one baffling pick — the 1990s sitcom “Mad About You.” But the minds of geniuses often work in strange ways.

If I were compiling such a list, I’d include the Discovery Channel’s science series “Mythbusters,” Showtime’s provocative “Penn & Teller: Bull----!” and Fox’s late, lamented comedy “Arrested Development.”

The reality is that TV has never been as mind numbing as its critics have often contended.
In his speech to the National Association of Broadcasters, Minow infamously said, “... when television is bad, nothing is worse. ... I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland.”

Of course, what’s often left out is what Minow said first: “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.”

Of the 10 shows on Werdell’s list, four are still on the air. That may just reflect a bias toward programs Werdell is more likely to have seen recently. But it may also reflect an improvement in TV programming.

Despite the explosion of “reality television,” most TV shows are getting smarter and demanding more of their viewers.

In his 2005 book “Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter,” Steven Johnson graphs the complexity of TV plots. He finds, for example, that more recent programs, like “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos,” ask far more of their viewers than did dramas of earlier decades, like “Dragnet” and “Starsky and Hutch,” to use his examples.

Of course, the politics depicted on “The West Wing” is a bit less accurate than the medical science depicted on “House,” but that’s beside the point. The point is that watching television is no longer a passive activity. It takes a lot of mental effort just to keep up. You almost need a scorecard to follow the goings on of “Heroes” and “Lost.”

Comedies are also more complex. Apart from “Arrested Development,” Johnson cites “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons” as examples of far smarter writing than, say, “Three’s Company.”

Simple sitcoms — Johnson mentions “Everybody Loves Raymond” — still prosper, but so do intelligent ones with rapid-fire dialogue and ongoing stories. For every “Raymond” there is now a “Scrubs” or “The Office.”

Given a cable lineup of 100-plus channels, you’ll certainly come across a lot of bad TV, but it’s more likely than ever that you’ll find TV worth watching, too. Just ask the chairman of Mensa; he’s a pretty bright fellow.

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