Opinion | Columns

Intellectual stimulation from the ‘idiot box’

TV or not TV—that is the question.

I’m a content junkie, and recently my favorite medium has been television. In terms of creative potential, television is unrivaled—while a movie only has two or three hours to develop characters, a setting, an atmosphere, and a fully drawn-out story, a TV show can have 60 or more hours over the course of five or six years. People are finally harnessing TV to its full potential. Good TV has existed for a while—The X-Files, Twin Peaks, M*A*S*H*, the first 10 years of The Simpsons—shows that really pushed the medium to its edge. As critics love to say, though, we’re now in the Golden Age, mostly due to the rise of non-network channels that are willing to throw a blank check at genius auteurs with the hopes that they will create the Great American TV Show. 

For us viewers, it’s been great. The Wire and The Sopranos paved the way to helping producers realize that we could actually appreciate challenging, thought-provoking programs, and not just escapist shows like Grey’s Anatomy, or escapist shows masquerading as intelligent shows like The West Wing (which I still love unconditionally). Especially over the past five years or so, there’s been a shift of talent as “real” actors, directors, and—most importantly—writers are gravitating to the world of television. 

TV isn’t just an escape anymore, something you turn on after a day at the office to zone out on while you eat dinner. TV is challenging. The show I’ve been obsessed with recently has been True Detective: a beautiful Southern Gothic starring a cantankerous Woody Harrelson and Matthew “Wooderson” McConaughey, both absolutely killing it. The most groundbreaking part of the show, though, isn’t the acting, or the incredible directing, or the soundtrack scored by T-Bone Burnett, but the writing. The script is unlike anything TV has ever seen, with long philosophical rants that are a combination of Nietzsche, string theory, and McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confused. The fourth episode ended with one of the greatest action sequences of all time—think Alfonso Cuarón directing Training Day—but most of the next episode was devoted to McConaughey opining about how time is a flat circle, and we’re all cursed to repeat everything for all eternity. It’s not your average prime-time show.  

As America is supposedly slipping deeper and deeper into anti-intellectualism, it’s funny to see a show like True Detective take off. It’s even funnier watching the strongest anti-intellectual response coming from critics, who are supposed to be part of the higher-educated vanguard, declaring the monologues from True Detective no better than a blazed college sophomore sitting on his couch talking about what he just learned in his survey philosophy class (which frankly offends me, because I remember our rants as being pretty spectacular). 

Sophomore year, I was definitely more into that—spending all night talking about Hegel and the existence of God, etc.—until I realized I sounded like a pretentious asshole, which I think is a revelation most liberal arts students go through (or never do, because a lot of us still consistently sound like that). As you get older, I think the lofty discussions about Truths gradually get replaced with discussions about the economy. It’s a lot easier to talk about metaphysics sitting on the steps of your college campus with a hookah after a day of class than it is coming home from a day at your 9-to-5, when all you really want is a cold beer. 

At a place like Columbia, this bubble at the top of an ivory tower, it’s easy to stay intellectually stimulated, because that’s literally our single purpose here (well, that, and becoming the best possible candidates for management consulting). Our days are filled with classes, and we’re surrounded by people who are smart and want to learn. Sometimes it’s frustrating and seems indulgent, but when you get out of here for a while, you realize how lucky we are. Once we’re pushed off the tower, it’s hard to tell where that stimulation, or even the desire for stimulation, will come from. 

And that’s why I think we’re drawn to content: Other people are asking the questions for us. We don’t have to do all the thinking on our own, and it’s a release. Most of the time, we choose the content with the easiest questions—the average person doesn’t come home and crack open The Brothers Karamazov. We turn on the TV. And this is where I’m currently finding the silver lining of graduating—I’m leaving school at the exact right moment in TV history, when I can finally find a thought-provoking program instead of just reality shows, procedurals, and bad sitcoms. I can actually (pretend to) gain something from sitting in front of the tube, and it can do all the navel-gazing for me. 

Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Mondays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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