Is Popular Culture Good For You?

Thursday, October 6, 2005
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.
Bartos Theater


Critics have long accused the mass media of "dumbing down" our cultural lives in their appeal to the lowest common denominator. Steven Johnson's best-selling provocation, Everything Bad Is Good For You, has argued exactly the opposite. He says popular culture is rich and complex, challenging and rewarding the intelligence of its users. What evidence supports the claim that popular culture is
becoming more complex? What standards should be used to evaluate
contemporary popular culture? How does the popular culture of our own time resemble and differ from older forms of popular entertainment? How have technological and demographic changes affected television and other forms of popular culture?


Steven Johnson is the author of several books including Everything Bad Is Good For You and Emergence. He writes for Discover magazine and, and was co-founder of the website FEED. Johnson teaches in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Jason Mittell is an assistant professor of American civilization and film and media culture at Middlebury College. His book, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture explores television genres as cultural categories, as exemplified by a number of historical case studies.

Moderator: David Thorburn is a professor of literature at MIT and director of the MIT Communications Forum. He is the author of Conrad's Romanticism and many essays and reviews on literary, cultural and media topics.


[this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]

Steven Johnson

Despite claims to the contrary, popular culture has grown increasingly complex over the past thirty years. Complexity, in this case, is defined as the amount of cognitive work the audience is asked to perform in order to comprehend the work in question. This growing complexity is easiest to see in videogames, but is also occurring in television.

This renaissance of television complexity is often overshadowed by scandals associated with the medium, but it is difficult to deny that something remarkable is happening when innovative shows are both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. One particularly relevant example of this phenomenon is the ABC television show Lost, which exemplifies several of the key features associated with growing complexity.

[ Johnson shows a clip from the premiere episode of the second season of Lost in which a character whose face the audience cannot see wakes up, puts on a record, types on a computer, exercises, and performs various other activities, all of which stop when an alarm is triggered.]

First among these features is the willingness to confuse. In this clip, for example, we have no idea who this character is. Neil Postman claimed in Amusing Ourselves to Death that television in the 1970s discouraged elements that might confuse audience or require them to remember previous episodes. But Lost  and shows like it intentionally confound audiences at every turn, and require viewers to remember events from previous episodes to make sense of the ongoing narrative.

Second, Lost is structured like a videogame. Myst, in which the player must explore and solve puzzles on a remote, seemingly uninhabited island is a relevant example. A videogame is exploratory by nature, and makes more sense when one plays repeatedly. In a similar way, Lost encourages–or possibly requires–multiple viewings to fully comprehend the storyline. As an example of just how much work audiences are willing to do to better understand the show, we might note how fans have uploaded screen grabs of particular frames from Lost, so their meanings can be interpreted and debated. In addition, Lost  requires viewers to map complex social networks, much wider than those of earlier TV shows like Dallas .

Lost also possesses a complex temporal structure. While the show's plot at first seems similar to any number of 70s disaster movies, the presentation is entirely different in that we meet the characters after the defining event, not before, and learn their histories and past relationships through flashbacks and close analysis of their behavior. The show does not go out of its way to help the audience learn the show's social relationships, but instead expects its viewers to attend closely over many episodes to the interactions of the characters.

The more complex television shows tend to be highly receptive to fan feedback, and Lost is no exception. Internet message boards discussing Lost have threads with hundreds of posts and tens of thousands of page views, and the show's creators read them; this is a level of producer/fan interaction that was unprecedented in the days of Mork and Mindy. Unlike pre-digital era producers who often relied on traditional focus groups, Lost 's producers seek not to placate fans, but to challenge them.

Lost also encourages close readings. One particularly enterprising fan has actually drawn blueprints of an underground bunker from the show, piecing it together from a handful of close, often poorly lit shots, and posting what amounts to an essay about how he deduced the shape of the bunker from the scant clues the show has thus provided.

The mysteries that characterize modern complex television dramas are often fractal in nature, i.e. they show up at every level of discourse. Lost provides mysteries at the levels of biography (“What happened to Jack's wife?”), geography (“Where did the plane crash?”), history (“Why has the S.O.S. been running for 16 years?”) and ontology (“Are the characters even still alive?”). Johnson estimates that currently there are between 30 and 45 running mysteries in Lost.

Jason Mittell

I'd like to examine the title of this panel in more detail. “Is Popular Culture Good For You?” I'm uncomfortable with the framing of the question, which seems to draw upon an antiquated “media effects” paradigm which views popular culture as a linear process of stimulus and response. Academics find this view problematic, and because of these difficulties it's unlikely a simple “yes” or “no” will suffice. A more appropriate answer would probably be that popular culture is good sometimes, for some people, in some circumstances. The question seems to suggest that popular culture is either “good for you” or “bad for you,” but is this really how people use and understand popular culture? The press certainly does, as shown by the predominance of media effects pundits, but do consumers?

Steve Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You refers to Sleeper, a Woody Allen movie in which a man is transported to the future to find that hot fudge sundaes and steak are, in fact, the healthiest foods. But it is worth noting in Sleeper that the inhabitants of the future don't seem to like steak and sundaes the way we do; rather, they eat them for nutritional value. This is not how consumers choose their entertainment, though. People don't choose their popular culture based on whether or not it's good for them, but whether or not they like it. The aesthetic value of popular culture, too often ignored in favor of its “nutrition,” deserves attention. So perhaps a better title would be, “For You, Is Popular Culture Good?” This new title emphasizes the questions of value, aesthetics and taste, which academics are usually careful to avoid. Another alternative title would be, “What Is Popular Culture Good For?” This title focuses on the uses of popular culture, and the gratifications and pleasures it provides.

There are several formal properties of modern television narrative. One is the complex interplay between episodic and serial forms. Shows like Lost have plotlines that are contained within a single episode, but these smaller arcs are contained within larger stories that play out over multiple episodes or multiple seasons. These shows also use experimental storytelling strategies, such as flashbacks and subjective narration, often going so far as to make “trick episodes” that dramatically alter the show's conventions, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer 's musical episode (“Once More With Feeling”), or its first-person narrated episode (“Storyteller”), its silent episode (“Hush”), and an episode focusing on the exploits of a supporting character (“The Zeppo”).

As the structure of television drama grows more complex, the aesthetic appeal increasingly involves not just the story, but the mode of discourse. The title of 24 , it should be noted, has absolutely nothing to do with the show's plot or characters, but rather the fact that each episode represents one hour of a single day. Additionally, several shows ( Alias, Buffy, Angel ) have quite self-consciously reinvented or “rebooted” themselves by dramatically changing their underlying plots and storytelling strategies in the space of a single episode.

As the mode of discourse becomes more prominent, so too does the prominence of a show's “author.” Shows by Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, J.J. Abrams and Larry David incorporate stylistic idiosyncrasies that are as much a part of the shows' appeal as the narratives themselves. This emphasis on explicit authorial identity is itself part of a larger phenomenon of meta-reflexivity, in which shows ask their audiences to remember that it's not just a cohesive fictional universe they're watching, but also a television show. This idea is not new, but it is rather new for mainstream popular culture.

To demonstrate these points, I'd like to show a clip from The West Wing, in which a character who had been wounded by gunfire is coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

[ A West Wing clip is shown, quick-cutting among three recurring scenes: a cello performance at the White House by Yo-Yo Ma, the character Josh, a presidential advisor, talking with a therapist, and Josh drinking alone at his home.]

In this clip, you can see the use of nested flashbacks, false memories, voiceovers, and even Bach's cello suite itself, is an important part of its narrative complexity: the layers of resonance and counterpoint, the elaborate use of ornamentation creates high emotional intensity and drama. Just as you must listen to the process to appreciate baroque music, so must you look at the process of TV's narrative complexity. There's a term for this kind of pleasure, coined by Neil Harris: the “operational aesthetic,” in which understanding how a machine works is pleasurable in itself, not just for the machine's output.

In this light, it certainly does seem that popular culture is becoming more complex, but this brings us to a new question: why? And, just as important, why now?

First, on an industry level, there is a dedicated quality audience of young, upscale, educated viewers who can be relied upon to tune in. On a technical level, the availability of DVDs and TiVo make repeat viewings exponentially easier, and it naturally follows that shows would take advantage of this by rewarding repeated viewings. A certain generational savvy about popular culture, in which viewers are active as both critics and participants, has been fortified by the rise of internet culture, making complex narrative structures accessible to larger groups, as opposed to small cliques of superfans. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the operational aesthetic is giving us access to new forms of TV pleasure, which gives us insight into information processing, how we make sense of the world and tell stories. So, to answer the initial question, I'd say that yes, it is good for us.

David Thorburn, director, Communications Forum

I'm especially sympathetic to Jason Mittell's emphasis on the importance of an aesthetic and evaluative perspective. Defenders of popular culture have often rejected questions of quality because they associated such questions with the discourse of the traditional high culture. But this hostility to aesthetic value makes it difficult to speak seriously about television and other popular forms, as Jason's discussion shows. The very categories of high as against popular culture are problematic, unhelpful in many ways. It is crucial to realize that many of the most honored items in the high culture museum were the popular culture of their own day. Dickens and Shakespeare are fundamental examples. The popular theater of Shakespeare's day was held in lower esteem by the cultural authorities of the era than television of the 1950s in our own society.

I would take issue, however, with the claim that 70s and 80s TV was universally vapid.  All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and MASH showed more moral, psychological and political complexity than most network programming today, as did the later Hill Street Blues . We can, and should, acknowledge the complexity of contemporary television without simplifying the history of the medium.


HENRY JENKINS, director of Comparative Media Studies: In reaction to Lost, other networks are producing shows like Reunion and Prison Break that try to mirror its complex format, but seem to have only a single-season shelf-life. Do you feel that there's a tension between the need to grow a complex narrative and the need to write a narrative that won't decisively end in one season?

MITTELL: American television is unique in that a show's success can be measured in terms of how long it stays on the air. British series, for example, are scheduled for short runs that end regardless of their commercial success. American TV shows stretch out as long as the show is commercially viable, leading to situations like The X-Files, where the show ran out of story and then ran out of stars, but remained on the air anyway.

JOHNSON: I've never understood networks' eagerness to cancel shows they've already paid for. If a show has been filmed for one season, and the storyline will take one season to complete, why yank it after two episodes, given that many long-running shows began with poor ratings? Hopefully the new DVD market and video-on-demand will change the market mechanics and guarantee new shows a season to develop.

QUESTION: While television drama seems to be getting more complex, comedy seems stuck in the sitcom forms we've been seeing forever. Why do you feel complexity is less acceptable in comedy?

MITTELL: I believe comedy is also getting more complex. Most of the big comedy hits, that is, shows with audience buzz, have been fairly complex. There seems to be an ebb and flow in comedies.

JOHNSON: When The Simpsons and Seinfeld  became successful, I thought the day of the 70s sitcom was over, and then Friends became a big hit. Another explanation, though, for why comedy might be stagnating right now is that reality television is leaving less and less time for scripted comedy, which discourages experimentation.

MITTELL: If you look at network TV schedules, procedural dramas like CSI and Law & Order make up most of the network's output right now.

THORBURN: The predominance of procedural dramas can be traced to 9/11, as American entertainment became obsessed with security, safety and order. So political influences also explain the limited range of content in many contemporary network programs.

QUESTION: Do you feel that we've lost moral and social complexity as structural complexity has grown? Lost, after all, includes themes of terrorism, drug addiction, single motherhood, incest, and other issues, but doesn't really deal with them, since the real issues get pushed aside in favor of the bigger mysteries.

JOHNSON: Part of the trouble with Lost is that so much of it does seem to be so supernatural, it doesn't focus much on issues of real human nature. The show can be too  fantastic.

MITTELL: There are some shows with very complex structures that deal directly with current social issues, but they all tend to be on Comedy Central. The Daily Show, South Park and The Chappelle Show, while it lasted, offered wonderful analysis of social issues.

QUESTION: My next question is for Steven Johnson. In your book, you described the computer game The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker in terms of objectives, and noted the plot itself was so simple-minded that no teacher would allow a student to write a paper on it. But Zelda is a children's game. Most teachers wouldn't let high-schoolers write a paper on Mary Poppins, but this doesn't mean teachers wouldn't accept any papers on film in general. Why didn't you acknowledge games like Silent Hill, which raise psychological, religious and moral issues, instead of using a children's game to represent the supposed narrative weakness of videogames?

JOHNSON: When I wrote that section of the book, I was using Zelda as an example of how even games that might not seem complex if you think of them as films might seem more complex if you think of them as word problems. Zelda wasn't intended to represent all videogames, but to prove a point that even the ones that seem extraordinarily simple are in fact quite complicated. I wasn't writing a unified field theory of popular culture, so to speak, and I'm not suggesting that my methodology is the only one that should be used.

QUESTION: The two video clips you showed seemed to present very different types of complexity. While the West Wing clip was simpler technically, it had more psychological depth. I wonder if it might be useful to differentiate complexity into “vertical” and “horizontal” types.

JOHNSON: The Lost clip isn't entirely representative, but I showed it because it's so intentionally confusing and because it demonstrates a spatial complexity usually seen in videogames. It often makes more sense to interpret games as architecture, not storytelling.

MITTELL: Also, the West Wing clip was taken from an episode's climax, whereas the Lost clip is a “trick” used to create confusion at the beginning of a season.

THORBURN: Can you address some of the ways in which television is affected by other media?

JOHNSON: Interactivity makes audiences smarter, and television follows suit. Despite our stereotype about kids and Attention-Deficit Disorder, kids are getting more patient when it comes to being confused. Videogames present rule systems in which the object is first and foremost to find out what the rules are; adults can't handle this kind of complexity, and need rules spelled out for them. Kids who play videogames are well adapted to it.

MITTELL: Six Feet Under provides an example of how iteration builds complexity in television, much like it does in videogames. In the first season, it's fairly obvious who's going to be killed in the show's opening, but in later seasons the show is filled with red herrings to confound the audience's expectations about who'll be the “death of the week.”

QUESTION: I like your optimism about popular culture, but I have to ask, if people are getting smarter, why is reality TV so popular?

JOHNSON: The section on reality TV in my book is often misrepresented, and I wish I'd written it differently. I think it's important to remember that reality shows are more like game shows than documentaries, and even if reality TV isn't great, it's better than The Price is Right. That's the ultimate test of the “Sleeper curve,” that even the crap is getting better.

JENKINS: Does complexity play out in lower forms? Soap operas and reality television seem to be growing more complex as well. Reality TV revived the soliloquy, after all, and there are 36 characters for to keep track of this season on Amazing Race.

MITTELL: Off-screen complexity is increasing as well, in terms of how the shows must be processed. Audiences are asked to examine the mechanisms of the shows, and watch along with producers.

THORBURN: However complex they might be technically, can we agree that the values dramatized by much by reality TV are dubious?

JENKINS: Don't look at the characters on reality TV, look at the audience usage of those characters. Contemptible behavior, even if successful, is still condemned by an increasingly participatory audience.

--compiled by Peter Rauch