Now this will be controversial but, I’m guilty of feeling this myself…
I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code during the Summer of 2003 as I visited my brother in Nevada. I remember feeling so engaged because it connected a huge bulk of interests that I have – namely a knowledge of Art History, Religion and Conspiracy. I was foolish enough to take some information as [mind the pun] gospel, but I think in some respects this is why the book – and film – were so successful. The book presented “facts” and, as you read this fictional book, you believed you were learning things. This was a time whereby Wikipedia was picking up steam and everyone became that much more interested in finding out stuff. Didn’t matter what, everyone wanted to be an expert. Reading The Da Vinci Code was a quick-fix guide to knowing your controversial art-history and anti-Christian sentiments. In reality, there is much more to Leonardo Da Vinci than his Last Supper … and there is much more to Christianity than the fact that John, the disciple on the left of Jesus, is regularly depicted as looking quite feminine.
I think that this happens alot. Incredibly engaging stories that present very ‘intelligent’ themes and ideas, when in fact, appealing to everyone. Using The Da Vinci Code again, it is a non-stop page turner. Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger. Every chapter is something-like 5-pages long. Its an easy read and not a theoretical understanding of Renaissance History. But it feels like it is something substantial because of the subject matter.
The West Wing, as I have argued before, in its first season presents stories revolving around prostitution, alcoholism and relationships but then purporting to be about politics. I can appreciate that the later seasons, with enough credability, ensured it could actually tackle the political points, but the foundations are about combining a [perceived] intelligent context – American politics – and throwing in some of the regular crowd-pleasing, lowest-common-denominator plots and character-arcs. I have had many arguments with friends about the merits of 24 – and more importantly, my belief that 24 is a better series through its non-pretentious perspective on bombs and cliffhangers. Going back to The West Wing, just like 24, it still relies on shock tactics and does something that would not be out of place in 24 by ending the first series with a assasiantion-attempt on the president.
A British TV-series, titled Qi presents a panel who are constantly confronted by tenuously linked facts and guess answers. The tenuous links, pretty much, mean it is difficult in recalling the information delivered in the programme but, again, it makes you feel as if you are learning. Stephen Fry, who I always enjoy watching on TV, comes across as an exceptionally intelligent University Professor, which only adds to this pseudo-educational programme.
I firmly believe that, though these films, books and TV-series are good at starting off an interest you cannot use them as the only starting point for an argument. You always find your Da Vinci Code fans who use Dan Brown’s research as the basis for their own arguments. You find [too many] people who believe that Bartlett’s polictical belief system is the only argument for democracy – disregarding other political stances and passing them off as simply foolish because “in West Wing it shows that equality can be achieved if…”, presenting The West Wing as the basis for a perfect political system and having no personal knowledge of actual political positions that have worked – and not worked – elsewhere.
I think this happens alot. I think there are many more examples of programmes and films that make the viewer feel like they are learning something. The truth is that some programmes, use regular techniques and plots to engage the viewer and then sugar-coat it with an ‘intelligent’ context that makes the viewer feel that much more superior to viewers who watch American Idol or Two and a Half Men. But, ironically, the TV-series use the same comedic-timing and the same cliffhanger and characters to hook everyone in. Throw in a bit of sex every now and then include attractive cast members who are all attracted to each other and there you have it, lets be honest, the same TV-programme. Same with films … same with novels …