Watching TV Makes You Emotionally Smarter

“I love a feel-bad movie. I hate to feel good at a theater. There is such honesty in the pain he puts on screen.”  —John Waters on Bruno Dumont

On December 14, Sundance Channel will air the series finale of Rectify, a drama that follows Daniel Holden, who has been released after nearly 20 years on death row—most of them spent in solitary confinement—when DNA evidence clears him of the rape, but not the murder, that put him there. For three seasons, the show has followed Daniel and his family through his reintroduction to society. His case reopened, the events of the crime are called into question, and the initial investigation is reexamined.

But unlike recent, hugely popular crime shows like How to Get Away With Murder, the questions posed to the audience are not “What really happened” or “Did he do it?” Given Daniel’s own murky memory and his potentially coerced confession, his own sense of the truth is constantly shifting. Instead, the inquiry takes on a more existential tone: “How are these characters affected by these events? How does our perception of others—and ourselves—change over the course of time and through the revelation of information?”

Rectify tackles these questions in a measured way, its plotlines develop as slowly as Daniel’s languid but calculated southern drawl. Time moves at a glacial pace. Each episode divides attention between no more than two or three storylines. The entire first season existed in the span of only six days, but in those six days it painted a visceral picture of anguish and joy, rage and despair, conflict and warmth, faith and suffering, each brush stroke meticulously pulled across a relatively small swath of canvas. After three seasons, we are no closer to the reality of Daniel’s guilt or innocence. And that’s precisely the point.


The Sleeper Curve

In 2005, Steven Johnson made the claim that watching TV makes you smarter. Early aught television, he argued, was “the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today.” His theory, which he called the Sleeper Curve, was that unlike the television of 20 years earlier, the compelling series in 2005 required active viewing: large numbers of characters—each with their own distinct personality and story arc—required viewers to pay attention in ways that they hadn’t before. Unlike the popular programs of yesterday, these new shows required actual intellectual labor in order for a viewer to properly follow the plot. According to Johnson, this narrative complexity, the weaving of multiple threads across scenes, episodes, and seasons without tying them together in a single knot, provided a “cognitive workout” for viewers on par with reading. “In order to keep up with entertainment,” he wrote, “you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships.”

Johnson uses the Sleeper Curve as evidence that, despite many opinions to the contrary, TV is not a mindless waste of time and brain cells, but rather a tool to sharpen mental acuity. While I am not inclined to disparage any claim that may justify the enormous amount of television I consume on a regular basis, when looking closely at what we demand of our entertainment, there’s much more to be examined than the volume of plot points or story threads.

Of course, by now our brains are accustomed to zigzagging from plot to plot thanks to narratively complex programs like Lost and Heroes, which trained us as viewers to carry the thread across story arcs, time jumps, and supernatural universes. We are no longer satisfied by mere mental calisthenics; it is no longer enough to simply solve the plot puzzle. Viewers are certainly still interested in tracing a character’s temporal trajectory, but they are equally if not more interested in following the emotional one. In the years since “Watching TV Makes You Smarter,” television and how it is consumed has undergone an enormous transformation, and programs centered around characters and situations that are morally, emotionally, and ethically complex have planted their roots in the pop culture landscape. Critics are quick to call it the new “golden age of television,” or “peak TV.” I call it the Awakening Curve.


Opening Our Eyes

While plot is central to any piece of narrative fiction, more and more programs are shifting focus away from complex plotlines in lieu of deeper explorations of human behavior and character studies. This is the Awakening Curve: a growing volume of programs more interested in character and emotion than story.

In “The Revolution Was Televised,” Alan Sepinwall traces the beginnings of this golden age of television to the many groundbreaking dramas produced by HBO in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when shows like Oz, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under featured central characters of questionable morals. These shows possessed the overlapping and interwoven storylines necessary to fall on the Sleeper Curve, but aligning audiences with “cops, crooks, slingers, and slayers,”—portraying them at once as sleazy and sympathetic—drew a very clear line between viewers’ concept of “hero” and “protagonist.” Of course, airing on HBO meant that the shows’ creators, free from a more rigid standards and practices department, had room to provide these contrasts by employing the use of violence, nudity, and brutality. Yet other shows were creating just as much complexity on the major networks.

After the success of his screenplay for the film Friday Night Lights, Peter Berg felt that there was more potential in the stories of high school football team the Dillon Panthers and its players dealing with the pressures of competition and adolescence in small town Texas. As he said at a 2006 television panel:

[The movie] was able to hit upon pretty complex issues: racism, education, parent-child relationships, celebrity, all these different issues. And in the film, we were limited. It was a 90-minute movie. And afterwards, I sat down with Brian Grazer, the producer, and…said, ‘Well, you know, wouldn’t it be kind of neat to be able to go deeper and to explore these issues?’ And that’s what brought me back one more time, because, a television series, if we’re lucky, we’ll have the opportunity to go deep.

The result was the television adaptation Friday Night Lights, which aired on NBC. The show did venture deeper into the issues presented in the film, and did so with an understated, almost soft-spoken rhythm—and without any convoluted plot twists. Stakes on the show were relatively low. Unlike 24, which Johnson uses as a defining example of the Sleeper Curve, plot on Friday Night Lights merely served as an entryway into understanding the minds and actions of the characters. Whether or not the team makes the playoffs is relevant only to how the results affect the players. It earned its place on the Awakening Curve by adhering to the Panthers’ team motto: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” TV critic Margaret Lyons called it “without a doubt one of the best, most meaningful shows of the modern era.”


Keeping Our Eyes Open

As viewers developed a taste for multi-dimensional protagonists, shows featuring more delicately drawn characters began to emerge. In 2007, Netflix launched its streaming service, allowing viewers to consume whole seasons and series in a single sitting. At the same time, shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad were growing in popularity. While they originally aired on cable, their addition to the streaming service made them widely available to more viewers, and without a high-priced cable package.

Like Friday Night Lights, the setting of Mad Men is much less important than how it changes and challenges its characters. We don’t tune in to see if Don Draper is going to land the Kodak account, but rather how coming up with the pitch for the potential client stirs up feelings of his childhood, his family, and his sense of self. With less plot to hang on to and the ability to watch each episode in quick succession, character development became the peg that kept viewers clicking “watch next episode.” It is no longer enough to watch the progression of plot—no matter how many unique threads or twists. More engaging is the emotional evolution of a character over time.


The Case for Crying (and Laughing and Feeling)

Central to Johnson’s Sleeper Curve is a subtlety in storytelling. These shows, he noted, were dropping their audiences in the heart of the action—be it Jack Bauer dismantling a bomb on 24 or White House Press Secretary CJ Cregg addressing the press corps on The West Wing—without much exposition. Characters carry on in highly technical conversation without what he calls the “flashing arrow,” or any obvious cue designed to explain or distinguish important information for the audience, and so the onus is on the viewer to parse what is going on in a given scene, and what information or dialogue is crucial to the plot. What was remarkable to Johnson was “the willingness to immerse the audience in information that most viewers won’t understand.”

By today’s narrative standards, even this mix of substance with texture is a flashing arrow in its own right. Again, we’ve been trained as viewers to navigate the subtleties in order to extract the necessary information. Our cognitive muscle is no longer challenged by lifting these same weights. And so meaning is extracted not by embedding a plot clue in a dialogue heavy with technical jargon, but rather in immersing the audience in the depths of the psyche of the character that delivers it. And even when hackneyed, oversimplified exposition remains, it is often eclipsed by intricacies of character. Of Mr. Robot, which follows a computer hacker named Elliot, Sepinwall writes: “it deploys a variety of devices that have become so overused on TV in recent years—in particular, that voice-over…—that they should seem more played-out. But because Elliot is such an unreliable narrator… it works.” We are no longer being immersed in information that we don’t understand, but into minds we that don’t understand. It makes sense given that the progression of these stories is not driven merely by plot, but by mood.

Even sitcoms are embracing the curve by moving away from the “situation” and finding the comedy in nuance and pathos.  How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs, and other top-rated sitcoms from 10 years ago—and as far back as the earliest sitcoms, for that matter—were almost identical in format: one main plot and 1-2 subplots, each with a well defined beginning, middle, and end; 1. Character has goal or problem, 2. Character sets out to achieve that goal or solve that problem, 3. Character succeeds or fails and learns a lesson. Turn on today’s top comedies, however, and it’s nearly impossible to chart this same course.

Take, for example, a breakdown of scenes in “Alarms,” the 6th episode in the first season of FX comedy Better Things. In it, single mother Sam has drinks with a friend, films a scene for the television show she is on, has a drink with another friend, takes her daughters shopping, has dinner with friends, films another scene for the TV show, has dinner with her ex-husband, and visits her mother who lives next door. (The episode’s official description: “Sam deals with some situations.”) As dry as the plot sounds, Better Things provides a rich and poignant portrayal of motherhood, aging, and growing up female in Los Angeles—it just does so with mood more than story. Better Things was written and created by comedian Pamela Adlon, who also stars as Sam. It is the latest in a series of autobiographical sitcoms from comedians, including Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, and Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi. Few, if any, of these shows follow a clear or logical through line over the course of an episode, but each delivers emotionally rich, complex characters.


Hooked on a Feeling

In 2015, a study published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts claimed that watching high-quality TV dramas may increase emotional intelligence. Based on an earlier study that tied higher scores on an emotion-recognition test to reading literary fiction, the study is reminiscent of Johnson’s Sleeper Curve and his theory that watching TV, like reading, can increase critical thinking and cognitive ability. It’s a neat theory, but it’s not what’s most compelling about the Awakening Curve.

In a review of the series, Emily Nussbaum praised Rectify for its “fearlessness in taking art seriously, not merely as a distraction but as a bridge between strangers, a way of reframing the world.”  And so as the series concludes, even if we never learn the truth about Daniel’s past, we’ll feel a loss. Not because of any unsatisfying ending, or unanswered questions, but because the time to occupy Daniel’s mind, to live in his emotions and those of his family, has come to an end. The Awakening Curve proves that viewers are no longer satisfied by plotting a narrative from one point to the next. Sure, we can challenge our brains to follow many interwoven storylines, but what we want—what we praise and enjoy—is to feel.