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All the Pieces Matter

Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You argues that popular culture is "good for us" because it makes us smarter. Steven Rubio reflects on Johnson's selective argument, shows us where he "jumps the shark" and has a look inside The Wire as an alternative way of thinking through the complexity of popular narrative.
Steven Rubio

Issue #74, December 2005

In his recent book, Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson argues for the existence of what he calls "The Sleeper Curve," after a Woody Allen movie from the 70s. According to Johnson, many of the cultural artifacts commonly considered "bad for you" (television, video games, and the like) are in fact not only not-bad, but good. Johnson believes that "popular culture has, on average, grown more complex and intellectually challenging over the past thirty years" (xiii). In making this statement, Johnson is not comparing apples to oranges ... he is not trying to claim that a Britney Spears reality show is "better" than M*A*S*H*. What he IS saying is that the best series television (he uses the example of 24 quite frequently) is more complex than the best series television of the past (say, Hill Street Blues), which was more complex than, say, Dallas. He is saying that Survivor is more complex than The Match Game. And Grand Theft Auto is more complex than Pac-Man.

Pac Man

And Johnson does this in a manner different from many of us who approach popular culture from an academic position. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a rave review of Johnson's book in the New Yorker, "Johnson wants to understand popular culture--not in the postmodern, academic sense of wondering what "The Dukes of Hazzard" tells us about Southern male alienation but in the very practical sense of wondering what watching something like "The Dukes of Hazzard" does to the way our minds work."

Johnson effectively demonstrates how today's television programs and video games are indeed more complexly structured than their counterparts in the past. For instance, he writes, "You could convey the entirety of the Pac-Man universe in a few pages of text. By comparison, the walk-through for Grand Theft Auto III ... contains 53,000 words ... Printed out in single-spaced twelve-point type, the document is 164 pages long" (173). Of course, today’s video games are more complex in part because computers and game machines are much more powerful than in the past. But there’s a cycle here: as the games get more complex, the users become more accustomed to complexity, they demand that complexity, the programmers supply it, and the users step up their skill level, resulting in the need for still more complex gaming.

Most mainstream media discussion of a game like Grand Theft Auto revolves around the content of the game ... it's the sex and violence that has Hillary Clinton pissed off. What interests Johnson, though, is how we use our brains when we play these games and watch these television series.

The most ambitious show on TV to date -- The Sopranos -- routinely follows a dozen distinct threads over the course of an episode, with more than twenty recurring characters.... The show doesn't offer a clear distinction between dominant and minor plots; each storyline carries its weight in the mix.... a single scene in The Sopranos will often connect to three different threads at the same time, layering one plot atop another. And every single thread ... builds on events from previous episodes, and continues on through the rest of the season and beyond.... Viewers ... no longer require ... training wheels, because twenty-five years of increasingly complex television has honed their analytic skills (69, 77).

Johnson's case for The Sopranos or Grand Theft Auto being "good for you" is structural: when he says they are more complex than similar things in the past, structure is what he means. And he takes his assumptions a great leap further when he claims that there is "empirical data that shows our cognitive muscles growing in response" to more-complex mass media (136). He bases his claim on improved scores in IQ testing over the years (the tests are regularly normalized to make "100" an average intelligence ... since people were scoring higher, the tests were made harder, meaning a person who tested "100" today took a more difficult test than a person who scored "100" back in the day). Johnson is not ignoring the critiques of those who point out the fundamental flaws in IQ testing (including vulnerability to environmental conditions and the narrowness of the intelligence being tested). But, he claims, “Some environmental factor … must be responsible for the increase in the specific forms of intelligence that IQ measures” (142). He addresses and dismisses many reasonable explanations for this "IQ increase" ... better nutrition, increased familiarity with IQ tests, improvements in education, etc. Then, in one king-hell of a brazen use of the term "self-evident," Johnson says, "If we're not getting these cognitive upgrades from our diets or our classrooms, where are they coming from? The answer should be self-evident by now. It's not the change in our nutritional diet that's making us smarter, it's the change in our mental diet" (144).

It's at this point that Johnson has probably, in the popular terminology of online teevee fans, "jumped the shark." His explanation of increased complexity in pop culture is convincing; ascribing improved intelligence on a societal scale to good shows on HBO is less convincing. And the absence of "postmodern academic wondering" about the cultural context of these artifacts is limiting. (Johnson has referred to his argument in the book as "content agnostic," and it should be noted he is perfectly willing to do content analysis elsewhere. It's his book that is content agnostic, not his entire oeuvre.) Johnson can break down the structure of 24 as many ways as he likes, but at some point, we have to consider the ramifications of a popular television series in our times that seems to be making a case for the efficacy of torture.

And the methodology for examining those ramifications comes from those of us concerned about content. For example, the content of 24 deserves an essay of its own. The fourth season of the program ratcheted up the torture quotient, itself problematic given the contemporary news stories about real-life torture by Americans. One episode even featured a pseudo-Amnesty International representative who did nothing more than get in the hero's way. Yet the torture scenes were so brutal and so frequent that it is at least possible they forced viewers to contemplate the realities of the torture they were reading about in their newspapers.

"We're building something here, detective. We're building it from scratch. All the pieces matter." --Freamon

Another conspicuous absence from Johnson's analysis of today's television is HBO's The Wire. The Wire has never had the cultural buzz of a Sopranos or Sex and the City ... it is ignored at the Emmys ... there is no "star." Nonetheless, The Wire is perhaps the perfect example of Johnson's beloved complexity at work. A look at the "cast page" for the most recent season lists 17 characters who are police or related, 15 characters who work the streets, mostly in the drug trade, and 8 characters who work out of City Hall. That's 40 characters for that season alone, and most of those characters are returnees from the previous two seasons, and they come with back stories. The show itself is paced more like a novel than other series, which recall the structure of soap operas. Each season tells a complete story, albeit one that relies on the stories of previous seasons, and each season's story unfolds very gradually ... you have to pay attention, you can't miss an episode. So where is The Wire in Johnson's book?

Allison McCracken at DePaul University offers one possibility:

It's no coincidence, of course, that character depth and relationship complexity are considered feminine tv territory, and "social problem" or genre programs generally mass or low art. But more than a gender or low art bias seems to be at work when Johnson neglects to mention HBO's Oz or The Wire -- surely the most complex of serial/action programs according to Johnson's criteria. The critiques of normative white masculinity these shows offer (reflected in the class, racial and sexual diversity of their casts) would seem to make them arguably more complex than The Sopranos, yet Johnson follows the lead of many critics by neglecting to mention or promote them. This omission suggests that the level of social critique a program makes is not a marker of complexity in Johnson's schema, and therefore tellingly not a factor in determining whether the program should be recommended to smarten audiences. (“Evaluating TV Smarts in the Public Sphere,” Flow (Vol. 2 Issue 4)

McCracken and others have also pointed out that complexity at the level of character for Johnson is a matter of social networks. It doesn't seem to matter whether or not the 40 characters have any individual complexity, as long as there are 40 of them to create a complex network of characters. Using this logic, the character of Omar on The Wire is nothing more than just another guy who makes the network complex. This misses a lot ... Omar is a gay African-American thief who embodies normative notions of black cool, except that he's gay ... he's a player in the street game who lives by a personal code ... his interrelations with other characters is itself complex, not just as names on a chart. One could write an entire paper on the character of Omar alone, or on the cultural impact of so many African-American characters on the show in so many different environments. One could write an entire book on the idiosyncratic method of controlling the drug trade proposed in the show's third season. None of these areas, though, would seem to fall under Johnson's argument.

Omar: Center

In fairness, I should note that when I asked him about this, Johnson emailed me to admit that the reason The Wire was not in the book was simply that he hadn't seen it, that many people had called him on that omission, that he was carrying the Season One DVD box set in his travel bag ... you get the idea. I look forward to hearing what he thinks of The Wire, but I don't suppose his perspective on contemporary television will be changed.

As noted above, Steven Johnson is hardly the only person to ignore The Wire. A recent article in Variety quoted several anonymous Emmy voters on why The Wire gets snubbed. Some examples: "It's so multilayered, so dense, that it's difficult to tune in midway through the season, thereby making it practically impenetrable to new viewers." (Translation: I'm too stupid to understand it, so I don't vote for it.) "The plot takes place in the drug-infested streets of west Baltimore, and with the vast majority of Emmy voters based in Southern California, there's little connection." (Translation: I love LA.) One of the reasons Johnson's book strikes such a strong chord with many readers is that while he describes a situation that already exists (pop culture is more complex, pop audiences can handle it, in fact demand it), not everyone has caught up with the reality Johnson describes. And so you have The Wire, one of the most complicated shows in the history of television, on all levels: character, narrative, morality and ethics, race and class and gender. And you have people who should know better saying "yes, but it's too hard." The pop audience and the world of pop criticism hasn't come to a point of complete acceptance of what Johnson is describing. And make no mistake: however much I might disagree with the "content agnostic" approach, Johnson convinces us that today's culture IS more complex. More complex, in fact, than even Johnson realizes, which is why McCracken can critique Johnson's approach because his definition of complex is actually not complex enough. It's based too fully in "non-content."

An analysis of the third season of The Wire is instructive in this regard. First, we can only imagine how Johnson would approach the topic. Johnson uses a couple of visual aids that illuminate his point. One shows how the "social networks" of today's television programs are busier ... he offers "connect the characters" charts to demonstrate that today's programs tend to have more characters who interact in a more complex fashion. His other visual aid is a chart that shows the number of narrative threads in shows then and now, along with the number of those threads that are relevant at any particular moment. An older show will have, say, two threads that alternate, a newer show will have half a dozen threads, any two or three of which are happening at any time.

One could do this with The Wire's third season with its 40 main characters. And one could then make a case for quality in The Wire by referring to the "content agnostic" complexity of the show. But The Wire's greatness, while it is enhanced by its non-content complexity, derives as much or more from the complexity of character and ethics and politics and the rest. From the content, in other words.

Late in Season Two of The Wire, we meet a seemingly minor character, Major "Bunny" Colvin, who expresses dismay at the lack of anything resembling progress in the war on drugs. Colvin makes more frequent appearances at the beginning of Season Three, when majors across the city are being pushed to bring their crime rates down. Colvin's solution is to move the drug trade to a few uninhabited parts of his district. He lets the dealers know in no uncertain terms that he is serious, that if they ply their trade outside the accepted areas they will pay the price, but if they stay within the prescribed regions they will be left alone. The result is clean streets throughout most of Colvin's area, and a thriving drug zone, called "Hamsterdam" by the participants, where drugs are de facto legal.

Colvin's plan "works," except he has to keep it secret because no public figures can allow themselves to be associated with a program that essentially legalizes drugs, even if the program makes a majority of neighborhoods safer places to live. The narrative thread is very complex by this point, and is populated by a complex set of characters, some who have been with the series since its inception, some like Colvin who are relatively recent additions, some who are new for Season Three. While a new viewer might have been able to keep up if they'd started at the beginning of the season, nuances and primary threads alike would be obscure to those viewers. It helps immensely to see every episode of The Wire.

And the complexity is not "content agnostic." The drug trade is never going away. Corruption is never going away. Small victories will be won, at a price, and rarely will they become large victories. Even Colvin's "Hamsterdam" is a failure, not just because ass-saving politicians demand that it fail, but because it's essentially rotten. Near season's end, Colvin takes a city councilman on a tour to show how much Colvin's program has accomplished. He shows off the neighborhoods, thriving again in the absence of drug deals; he shows him police stations, where cops can work on real crime; he takes him to a meeting where locals applaud Colvin's efforts. And all seems well.

But then Colvin takes the councilman to Hamsterdam. And Hamsterdam has devolved into a nightmare. It's the dark side of Colvin's vision, and with the councilman, the viewers understand that Colvin hasn't solved anything at all. He's just moved it to another place, where it can fester and rot. Among the casualities: a minor character, a junkie named Johnny who was in the very first episode of The Wire and a dozen or so more over the next three years. Johnny reminds us that there are no minor characters in The Wire. All the pieces matter. And the complexity is not only structural, but related to content.

"If I hear music, I'm gonna dance." --Greggs

When I was approached recently about teaching a survey course on American Literature for non-English majors, I was told that students should get a sense of the issues at stake in the category of "American Literature." I was thinking about Johnson's book, and felt The Wire, the most "literary" of the new kind of television series, would be the perfect choice for such a course.

I suspect I'm not the only person teaching in the States now who is thankful that Johnson's book, however problematic, puts the notion of "good for you" television in play.

I've been teaching for almost 20 years now, and I'm always impressed by the brilliance of the best of my students. What I've often noticed, though, both amongst my colleagues in the humanities and in the mainstream media, is an assumption that "kids these days" aren't as smart as when we were kids. And often the "reason" offered is that "kids today don't read enough." They watch too much teevee, they sit around and play video games all day ... you've heard these arguments, perhaps made them yourself. My own sense was that my students were not dumb at all. But it was clear that in general they had a different set of skills around which they could exercise their brilliance. They don't read as much, and their writing reflects that (I learned to write good paragraphs by reading a billion of them, and that doesn't happen much any more). But their visual acumen is superb. What those billion paragraphs meant to me as a writer, the billion jump cuts on music videos meant to my students. Johnson locks into this, I think. He's not really saying people are smarter these days (OK, maybe he is saying that, but I'm not buying it), but he's saying that in certain areas we are smarter, cannier, more complex in our thinking than we used to be. And I'm hoping to latch onto that in my AmLit survey course, when I include The Wire alongside Fitzgerald and Poe and Rita Mae Brown. As Johnson writes:

Recall the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half century of television's dominance over mass culture, programming on TV has steadily increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties. The nature of the medium is such that television will never improve its viewers' skills at translating letters into meaning, and it may not activate the imagination in the same way that a purely textual form does. But for all the other modes of mental exercise associated with reading, television is growing increasingly rigorous (64-5).

As I'm using The Wire in a literature course, I'll be emphasizing its more literary aspects. And because I'm a "postmodern academic," I'll be looking for cultural context, not only in The Wire but in The Great Gatsby and the rest. But if part of the journey I'll be taking with my students involves discovering what's at stake in American Literature, I believe The Wire will be a useful destination on our trip. And while Johnson provides an easy expert citation in support of the idea of teaching The Wire in an English class, any journey we take in our class needs to go beyond the limited sense of complexity that Johnson offers. A literature class, after all, should offer something more than mental exercise.

Finally, I'd take issue with an underlying theme of Johnson's book: that what matters about popular culture is that it is "good for you." Matthew Arnold is likely rolling over in his grave, but he and Johnson share the notion that culture should be good for you, even if they have different ideas about what kinds of culture should be promoted. Here again, Allison McCracken gets it right: "such an approach seems to me to undermine the original purpose of popular culture studies: to pay attention to that which is not deemed ‘good for you’ in order to validate and better understand the social lives of non-elites." Johnson isn't particularly concerned here with social lives; at least in this book, he argues in favor of popular culture not because it illuminates the lives of those who experience the culture, but because it makes us smarter. Yet many of us take part in that culture because we find it meaningful in a way that resides outside notions of good or bad. People like to eat Cap’n Crunch because it’s yummy; no one eats it because it is fortified with vitamins. Johnson would have us believe that yumminess isn’t the point; he’d direct our attention to those vitamins, and miss the smacking of our lips.

Steven Rubio doesn't watch as much television as people think. He currently splits his working hours between San Francisco State and American River College, and his non-working hours writing his blog ( and, well, watching television. His essay "Not the Movie: King Kong '76" just appeared in King Kong is Back from Benbella Books.

Copyright © Steven Rubio. Pac Man Book Scan: Walton Gibson and the Classic Video Game Literature Site. Picture of Omar: HBO. All rights reserved.