3 shows that prove television doesn’t need to dumb down

There’s always an argument going on regarding the media. One of the many points of contention is that some people are concerned that television, books, newspapers and the like need ‘dumbing down’. For example, that newspapers should target their content at the person in their readership with the lowest reading level in order to be understood by all.

From somewhere, the media have this idea that everyone is arrogant, illogical, stupid and touchy. They think that if we see a word in a news piece or book that we don’t understand, we’ll sue everyone within five miles of the place where the book was printed for discrimination. I’ve said before that this world is one in which a misogynist could successfully sue his mother for being a woman; today the media are spending more time and effort on covering their asses than they are on making and writing quality products for us to consume.

The industry now thinks that if any of us reads a word that we don’t understand, we’ll throw down the book/turn off the television in a fit of rage, and presumably go out and do a graffiti, kill a policeman or just drag our Neanderthal knuckles along the floor as we lope around trying to find bananas or a tyre swing.

In reality, I think, most of us would just look up the meaning of the word. Most of us would think reaching for the dictionary is a floccinaucinihilipilification, not a massive insult to our intelligence. By the way, are you still reading, or eating a banana in your tyre swing? Just testing. And by the way I had to look that word up before I put it in. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

House, Bones and The Big Bang Theory are three great examples of why the average television viewer is much more capable of thought that than industry likes to believe.

All the series, medical drama House, crime drama Bones, and science comedy The Big Bang Theory are about very clever people with lots of specific knowledge, doing very technical things. They all feature a ton of terms and concepts that most people, unless they are trained doctors, forensic anthropologists, or experimental physicists, won’t have a clue about.

And the best thing about House, Bones and TBBT? They don’t really bother to explain it to you. They make sure you understand what’s happening, but if the characters use a word the audience doesn’t know, and doesn’t really need to in order to understand the story, they don’t bother stopping in order to do this:

Character 1: I don’t know, I can’t help thinking it’s just a floccinaucinihilipilification.

Character 2: What, you mean some people might think it’s trivial?

Character 1: As I said, a floccinaucinihilipilification.

Of course the difference is that most of the time, House and Bones are talking about medical things (I’m including Bones in this because, and feel free to disagree, I think death counts as a ‘medical thing’; if I was dying I’d much rather go to a hospital than a taxidermist), and TBBT about specific scientific terms. Floccinaucinihilipilification is just a long word that any idiot (like me) could find.

Also worth mentioning (in my mind) are the films of my favourite director, Christopher Nolan. His Batman trilogy, and Inception, Memento, and The Prestige, show that you can have intelligent action films. The Batman films and Inception feature both ‘thinky bits’ and explosions. I think Nolan’s Batman films explore on a much deeper level what being a hero is really about, and the toll it takes on a person. It’s much more than ‘Oh no, I’ve fallen into this magic acid. I should put a leotard on now and save people’, but each film still manages to have big action sequences as well as something for the audience to think about.

The Matrix proves this as well (thank God they didn’t make any other follow ups and wreck the whole thing). It’s packed full of references to art, literature, the Bible, etc. Every time you watch that film, you pick up on something else. It’s an incredible example of thoughtful and intelligent writing, yet still manages to feature incredible action scenes and things being blown up.

House, Bones and The Big Bang Theory all draw you in to an incredibly complex and technical world, in which, by the very premise of the shows, you are unlikely to know anything about. While we may not understand some of the direct scientific ideas and concepts that The Big Bang Theory often bases its jokes around, we know enough from their context in the surrounding sentences to infer the relative meaning and understand the gag.

These shows prove that audiences are fine with being bombarded by terms and ideas they don’t know or understand, and can still identify with characters who are much cleverer than they are.

I like fight scenes, I really do. And I like watching things blow up. It’s great. But I don’t want a film like Avatar that just goes ‘Look, pretty colours, things happening’. I want something that can astound me visually, but engage with me on a deeper level. I want to be provoked, I want to have to question, I want to need to discuss things afterwards with my friends because we’re all unsure of what we’ve just witnessed.

And I think the popularity of shows like House, Bones and The Big Bang Theory proves that, contrary to what some in the industry seem to believe, the people who like a little bit of brainwork with their entertainment aren’t the rare creatures they think them to be.


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9 thoughts on “3 shows that prove television doesn’t need to dumb down

  1. I totally agree, and I think you’ll like Cloud Atlas when it finally graces British cinemas in February. Six Feet Under the TV series, I would have thrown in the mix too, albeit not as modern, it is still thought provoking, satirical and full of dark humour as well as exploring the different characters’ journeys on an emotional, intellectual and sometimes even spiritual level. I would definitely include it as ‘intellectual television’.
    In regards to House, who cares if I barely understand a word from it? If it has a good plot line or two, fantastic actors, and it pushes the boundary of ‘Should we really include this topic?’ then I’m in. I don’t need a medical degree to understand it, but you do pick up terminology as you go, even if you didn’t think you would.
    In the age of Jeremy Kyle, I think the world could do with more interesting and artsy films and television that don’t circle around ‘OMG TOTES HAD BABYZ YOLO!’

    1. Yeah, Cloud Atlas looks interesting. I’ve never seen Six Feet Under. I would say I’ll check it out soon, but with the first 4 seasons of House to watch, the first 3 seasons of The Big Bang Theory, 1 more series of Not Going Out to watch and Rhod Gilbert, Stuart Francis and Dara O’Briain DVDs arriving soon, I think I’m fully booked up on TV for the foreseeable future 😛

      House certainly does seem to like pushing boundaries. A speech about baby coffins in the first or second episode (I forget which) and like the fourth episode being about dead babies, as examples. I just love watching Hugh Laurie in it, and thinking ‘that’s the man who was in Blackadder, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, and Jeeves and Wooster’. He’s like the quintessential British bumbling idiot, yet there he is playing a *mostly* serious, grumpy, bitter American. He’s fantastic, in my opinion.

      ‘And the lie detector said…’ I don’t care, unless a regime could be toppled or a religious conspiracy could be exposed as a result of the answer.

  2. By all means, make my mind race to keep up with you: It means I’m engaged and actually care about trying to follow rapid intelligence, as opposed to the complete lack of engagement you’ll get out of me if I’m bored by slow simplicity. Make mine mild confusion over a tedium-induced coma any day!

    1. I think I’d struggle to make your mind race. The problem with dying down is that you’ve got to be more intelligent than your audience to begin with. Tedium induced comas, however, I might be able to manage 😉

      1. Hmm, turning your nemesis into a glaze-eyed vegetable might just end the battle, once and for all. I’d best start developing an immunity, just in case you try to be too stupidly clever for anybody’s good.

  3. Great post – totally agree with this statement: I’ve said before that this world is one in which a misogynist could successfully sue his mother

    I feel that way every time I watch the news.

    I also agree with you about those three shows, but I only watch The Big Bang. I don’t always get it, but I do find myself laughing anyway.

    1. Thanks. It’s a sad thing that that statement is actually true.

      They’re all brilliant shows (or at least were; Bones went downhill from season five onwards, so I don’t know about it’s present state). The Big Bang Theory is so good. It’s great to see that nerd humour can actually be really popular, and it’s got a great cast of characters in it.

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