Critic’s notebook: Television isn’t just for dummies

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The news that some of this year’s SATs included an essay question about the merits of reality television recently led to an Internet-encouraged exchange of intellectual huffing and puffing the likes of which we haven’t seen since William F. Buckley took on Gore Vidal. The question was either prejudiced — Smart kids can’t be expected to know anything about reality TV! — dangerous — Are we encouraging the youth of America to watch junk? — or simply pandering, proof that the SATs are dumbing down along with the rest of the culture.

I think next year’s question should ask students to analyze the response to this year’s question, which has nothing to do with the SAT or the habits of teenagers or the future of our nation and everything to do with an uneducated and archaic view of television.

For the record, the essay question was carefully worded to explain the nature of reality TV (for those seven American teenagers who have never heard of “American Idol” or looked at television, newspapers, magazines or the Internet in their lives) and the question focused on the conundrum of shows claiming to be “real” when they are actually scripted. So it wasn’t as if students had to correctly name every Real Housewife of Beverly Hills and list their children’s eating disorders. The same essential question — how important is verifiable fact to drama — could have been framed in terms of memoir, documentary or biopics.


But the question wasn’t about poetic license in “Angela’s Ashes” or the use of misleading narrative in “A Beautiful Mind,” it was about television, and that’s what got everyone’s knickers in a twist. Apparently, many otherwise intelligent people still consider television so anathema and antithetical to education that merely mentioning its existence in an academic setting is upsetting.

Granted, the specific issue was reality television, which even many fans consider the theatrical equivalent of chicken nuggets — tasty, perhaps, in the short run, but of no real good to anyone, including the chicken. Even this is a reductive and uneducated attitude. Reality television has many sub-genres; viewers who deplore “Jersey Shore” may be devoted to “American Idol” or “The Amazing Race,” and it’s difficult to argue with the message of “The Biggest Loser” or “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” Oprah Winfrey, who knows a thing or two about the American mind, just started an entire network devoted almost solely to reality shows.

Yet even if we were to mistakenly dismiss reality shows as having no intrinsic value, there is no denying their influence on television in general. And considering that television still remains the most ubiquitous, influential and powerful medium in the world — which Buckley and Vidal knew only too well — any shift in its structure or content is worth academic consideration. Encouraging students to never watch television is like telling them to avoid leafing through the Federalist papers — you don’t have to be able to recite chapter and verse, but it is helpful to have a general understanding of what all the fuss is about. Ignorance is something good educators tend to eschew.

What all the arched-brow outrage over the SAT question revealed is not a protective instinct toward education but a snobbish unwillingness to admit the real nature of TV. Yes, there is crap on television, just like there is crap on the stage and in movie houses and the music industry and all over bookstores. There is certainly plenty of crap in academe. But there are also, as in all forms of arts and letters, many wonderful and wondrous things on television. Yet some people still have no compunction about announcing “Oh, I never watch TV” as if this were an intelligent thing to say, as if it weren’t exactly like saying, “Oh, I never watch films, listen to music or read books of any sort.”

It is a free country, of course, and people are entitled to deprive themselves of Ken Burns, “Mad Men,” “Temple Grandin,” “Modern Family,” “Little Dorrit” or “Survivor” as they please. But there’s no need to extend that prejudice to the next generation. One of the other questions on some of this year’s SATs involved a contemplation of photography, an art form that was, once upon a time, considered the devil’s work as well.