by Phil James
The so-called golden age of television is benefitting from a number of engaging, well-written shows that are undoubtedly entertaining. But what you may not know is that they are teaching us using a method proposed over 2,000 years ago.
We can safely say that television has evolved in the past ten years. With cable television losing steam to subscription-based channels like HBO and Netflix, programs have been able to present their content without annoying ads interrupting the storylines every ten minutes, and shows have not been required to drop unnecessary bombshells or plot-intrusive gags to keep an audience engaged once a week. The medium is not without its flaws, but it has fortunately metamorphosed into something far less wasteful than movies like Idiocracy have perceived it to turn into. My selection of good TV is not without its biases, but shows that have succeeded commercially and critically follow a distinct model that not only reflects the evolution the novel in the 18th century, but also the evolution of art in general.
The method used by many of these successful shows goes back to the work of Horace, a poet and close confidant to many in the Roman courts during their ascension as a world power. During Emperor Augustus’ famous, half-century-long Pax Romana (a time of relative peace in Rome), Horace wrote poetry on a number of subjects–including the role of citizens in society and on Hellenistic (Greek) mythology, which earned him the respect as an effective rhetorician in the capital. While his verse is still read in academic circles today, perhaps his most important text was the Ars Poetica, or The Art of Poetry, a short epistle on the role of poetry in society.
Athenian philosophers Plato and Aristotle had debated the role of art in society, the former decrying it as a harmful pleasantry that distracted from their role as citizen. Horace, on the other hand, expressed the importance of art and poetry as a way to teach while entertaining. As he put it,
Poets wish to benefit or to please, or to speak
What is both enjoyable and helpful to living.
When you give instruction, be brief, what’s quickly
Said the spirit grasps easily, faithfully retains:
Everything superfluous flows out of a full mind.
Of course, poetry was, at least in Horace’s time, a word that described at artful use of language. Long before novels and screenplays, he recognized that you could gain a better grasp of daily living while also being entertained by its artful presentation.
We can evidently see this model as being not only a method for the writers of shows like House of Cards and the The Wire, but also a Modus Operandi. On the surface, House of Cards is a show about backroom manipulation in American politics, but the scenes demonstrate the differences between those who succeed with their oratory skills and those who fail with them. Likewise, The Wire–about the daily life of dozens of different people in various different positions in law enforcement, government and private enterprise–teaches its audience about how to succeed at their jobs. This relationship between pleasure and education is important, too, because it provides incentive for the screenwriter to become clever instead of simplistic. It also compels audiences to pay more attention by asking the right questions. How does one, for example, navigate through a world of pen-pushers and manipulative pecking orders?
Another example I want to bring up is Sherlock, and not just the BBC series (though it follows the same model), but also Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book series, as they also show the benefits of teaching while educating. While many Sherlock series’ have focused on the adventure aspect of crime-solving, the newest edition showcases in great detail the thought-process, almost more so than the crimes themselves. This is what made the original print editions so popular, too. To best understand and replicate the method, you had to pay extremely close attention. It forced you to improve your reading skills to best understand it.
I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due, and the evolution of television has reflected the same evolutionary process as the novel in the 18th and 19th century, where it emerged from bawdy entertainments and inaccurate adventure novels to entertain many about adopting to new and often difficult forms of living. One of The Wire‘s episodes is called “The Dickensian Aspect”, which is not only an homage to the English novelist, but also to his method. He addressed the challenges faced by many in the city by demonstrating how to survive under dire conditions and oppressive institutions, while also entertaining a wide audience. Likewise, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre addressed the challenges of working as a subservient governess while also bewildering its audience with the allure of the Gothic tradition.
The list goes on, but the pattern emerging in new TV proves that the language arts–be it in Classical poetry, novels or political dramas–can in fact evolve into something better. It was not long ago that media theorist Neil Postman argued that we may very well be “amusing ourselves to death” with our viewing and learning habits. The way new TV is going, though, we may actually be breathing new life into it.