27 December 2015

The "TV Show of Ideas"

The "novel of ideas" is a literary genre with a lot of great members.  Novels like The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain, War and Peace, The First Circle, etc. all fit the type: the characters and plot are bound up with a high level struggle for understanding, with the result that these novels end up providing as much of a philosophical education as some of the great treatises and dialogues written since Socrates.

There are also, obviously, "films of ideas".  Some of them approach philosophical fiction like Dostoevsky, and include characters wrestling with themselves and each other in dialogue about moral and metaphysical dilemmas.  (Ingmar Bergman sticks out in my mind as the best representative of this group.)  Other philosophical films use science fiction to take some feature or problem of ordinary life to an extreme, so that we can consider it more clearly.  (Of the innumerable examples, two that occur to me at random are Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Ari Folman's The Congress.)  Even more common is the ordinary drama which includes moments of principled reflection or crises of choice in order give the plot a sense of weight and significance.  (Peter Parker has his token line, "With great power comes great responsibility."  Many movies include canned speeches by the hero-leader about freedom and justice and sacrifice.)

People have a natural appetite for philosophical fiction, inasmuch as stories about ideas are one of the few accessible ways the person who has not studied philosophy (and how many Americans have?) can discover principles with which to understand the world.  Writers like adding elements of the philosophical into their stories, because they offer another way to bind together plots and create compelling themes.  Of course, this is often done poorly, and so we frequently end up with "The Movie of Clichéd Ideas" and "The Film of Aggressive Moralizing".  When done poorly, the results are generally worse than they would have been without any attempts at principle or profundity, since hollow truisms and philosophical cliches end up sounding like nonsense, even when they're true.  (Though a dramatic score with lots of brass can cover this up.)

There are fewer examples of "TV Shows of Ideas".  The two that stick out in my mind are Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, many episodes of which are simply sketches meant to pose a moral quandary to the viewer, or impress upon him some civic virtue.  I like philosophy, and I think philosophical reflection is very good, but good serial dramas tend to hang more on character development than anything else, and they tend to lack long-term storylines of sufficient complexity and coherence to support a grand exploration of a set of philosophical issues.  The result is that TV shows which attempt to go philosophical will either end up with discrete episodes or multi-episode arcs that hammer home some random intellectual point (before moving on) like Star Trek, or a single theme (or set of themes) will be drilled into the viewer with such bland intensity that they end up becoming clichés by the end of the series.

The X-Files is a good example of the latter.  On an intellectual level, the show deals mainly with the conflict between two standards of belief: Scully is the empiricist; Mulder is the man of conviction.  Scully doubts; Mulder believes.  In general it's an interesting tension and it serves the show well.  However, after a few seasons, Scully's unwavering skepticism and Mulder's (always correct) conspiracy theoires have become such a mainstay for the show's writers (who always resolve the tension in favor of Mulder) that they cease to be anything more than two competing mantras: "Science!" and "I want to believe!" By the later seasons, it doesn't matter, though, because viewer interest in the characters and their quest for answers has pretty much wiped out any concern for standards of belief.

I started this post intending to talk about Falling Skies (TNT's post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama, which I just finished watching yesterday), and how that show, despite checking off about five different items that make it ripe for cheap intellectualism, manages to stay almost entirely aloof.  It's an apocalyptic drama.  It involves all sorts of difficult moral situations.  It has a running "American Revolution" theme.  Despite all this, the writers almost never turn episodes into meditations on moral conundrums, nor do they draw on freedom-talk or the ideals of American liberty to gross excess.  The show chooses to show a bunch of outlandish and difficult situations which involve ideas, but without directly commenting on them or drawing obvious moral conclusions.  The show is not "realist" in any normal sense, but its treatment of ideas is, in some analogical sense, realist, in that it presents moral problems via the plot, but refrains (mostly) from having them hashed out pedantically in dialogue.

Anyway, there's more to be said about all of this, but I'm satisfied with saying this much for now.