In this excerpt, Steven Johnson takes a look at the development of television narratives over the past few decades. In this, he argues that many of the shows that our population deems bad TV, are relatively healthy for our brains to watch.
Johnson compares hit TV shows like Dragnet and Starsky and Hutch to that of more recent shows like The Sopranos. He explains how early television like Dragnet and Starsky and Hutch follow a strict linear narrative with little variation of the plot while The Sopranos “will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot atop another” (283). Therefore, shows like The Sopranos demand a lot more attention from their audience, engaging them with complex characterization and intertwining multiple episodes. This is what Johnson defines as the Sleeper Curve.
Johnson goes on to compare reality television over the decades. He takes a look at earlier shows like The Love Boat and The Newlywed Game and compares them with newer shows like The Apprentice and Survivor. He explains how the earlier reality TV is more structured, and how the rules are mapped out beforehand, therefore requiring less focus to pay attention. However, Johnson compares the structural similarities in today’s reality TV to that of a video game. “…the rules aren’t fully established at the outset. You learn as you play” (290). By this video game structural method, shows like Survivor and The Apprentice keep the audience more engaged and develop more critical thinking.
Johnson concludes the excerpt by finally establishing his argument. “What I am arguing for is a change in the criteria we use to determine what really is cognitive junk food and what is genuinely nourishing” (293). This argument poses a change in how we rate television. Johnson is saying that even though shows like The Sorpanos and 24 display acts of obscenity and violence, they are subsequently more valuable in brain development than shows that are more linear in plot less obscene. “You have to focus to follow the plot, and in focusing you’re exercising the parts of your brain that map social networks, that fill in the missing information, that connect multiple narrative threads” (292). What Johnson is posing is instead of monitoring what our children watch or we watch based on obscenity and violence, we should take a look at a program’s narrative development.
“In the end, the Sleeper Curve tells us something about the human mind. It may be drawn toward the sensational where the content is concerned – sex does sell, after all. But the mind also likes to be challenged; there’s real pleasure to be found in solving puzzles, detecting patterns or unpacking a complex narrative system” (292-293).