God save the Television
Tim Scanlan | Wednesday, February 11, 2015
This is a love letter to good television. It is also partially my rationalization for the amount of “Friends” my friends and I have watched in the last four weeks, but mostly it’s a love letter to good television. More specifically, I think we sometimes overlook the television we consume as mere distraction and forget that those three-hour binge watching sessions have an impact on our lives. Comedies, dramas, miniseries and adaptions all have a place on the small screen and because of the power of technology today, they are easily accessible to college students at a moment’s notice. Some shows bring us together, others suck us in, but good television can transform the way we look at the world around us.
It seems that sitcoms always bring people together, both during the actual watching of them and the constant recycling of their jokes in a group of friends. I swear the only reason I started watching “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was so that I could catch the references people around me were making. As everyone relieves the late 1990s by watching “Friends” on Netflix (as I write this, two faculty members at a nearby table are discussing how they just reached season four), I’m sure my once-dated “How you doin’?” will receive more traction now. Part of the fun is also the instant judgment when we viewers disagree with something the show’s creators do. When the “How I Met Your Mother” series finale aired, there was legitimate community building over the outrage spurred by our unmet expectations.
Sometimes though, great television can pull us in with artistry and a great story more than it operates as a communal affair. Although some dramas like “House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad” manage to generate buzz both in popular culture and in spaces that consider themselves more refined, some shows get us thinking more than they get us talking. Shows like “Black Mirror” and “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” on BBC are intense, thought-provoking series that might not reach a widespread audience, but have certainly left me speechless on more than one occasion (Harry Potter and Don Draper collectively play one early 1900s Russian doctor. Seriously.). In the United States, “Mad Men” — for all its misogyny and painstaking detail — has a cult following like few other shows do. These programs do more than fill a few empty hours of our lives. They teach lessons, expose us to new ideas and force us to confront our biases and prejudices in the same way that literature does.
While some of the shows I have mentioned are already adaptations or rooted in pretty familiar television tropes, other series take adaptation to a new level and expose an entirely new audience to something magical. Sherlock Holmes may be the most portrayed fictional character of all time, but the BBC series “Sherlock” has helped create two Hollywood superstars and definitively reimagine the detective in the modern age. Also on the BBC (as you may have noted, I watch a lot of BBC), are several classic portrayals of the works of Shakespeare, featuring premiere actors in incredible settings. Shakespeare’s cultural weight can almost not be overstated, and these performances add vigor to texts that can often feel lifeless to a student.
An American adaptation that stands out in particular is “Band of Brothers,” taken from a nonfiction book by Stephen E. Ambrose. This miniseries follows the men in Easy Company during WWII and tackles questions of valor, leadership and victory during the deadliest war of all time (coincidentally the title comes from Shakespeare). When one type of entertainment is transformed into television, there is the potential for error and flops. But when done right, television can open up an entire world to people who may have never heard the works of Sir Doyle or Shakespeare, or known the bravery of the men in Easy Company. Good television not only gives these stories a wider audience, but also adds to them in its own unique way.
So next time you sit down to binge watch the new season of “Doctor Who” or “Game of Thrones,” remember that your time is not wasted. You could be learning about the past, connecting with friends or exposing yourself to new ways of thought. No matter what your particular brand of distraction is, just keep in mind that you are what you eat. Television will shape you and add to you. Think wisely before you binge.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.