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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