TV and Intelligence

We often hear that TV is geared to the lowest denominator. A common criticism is that mass media not only reduces uniqueness among various cultures, but contributes to numbing the mind and quashing the imagination.

However, well known story consultant, script doctor, and teacher, Robert McKee, has been saying for a long time that some of the best writing today can be seen on TV. (I could say that some of the worst can been seen on TV also, but that’s not the discussion today.)

In an essay Rob Brezsny says:

“. . . an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker notes that Americans’ IQ scores have been steadily rising for a long time — so much so that a person whose IQ placed her in the top ten percent of the population in 1920 would be in the bottom third today. One possible explanation: Our “growing stupidity” may better be described as a difficulty keeping up with the ever-growing mass of facts, whereas we are actually becoming better at solving problems.

Gladwell cites the book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Its author, Steven Johnson, argues that pop culture is increasingly expanding our intelligence about social relationships and stretching our ability to sort out complex moral dilemmas. TV shows in the 1970s, like “Starsky and Hutch” and “Dallas,” had linear, easy-to-follow story lines with simple characters who behaved in predictable ways.

Writing for TV shows like LostThe Sopranos, and Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica Cast photo by dark chacal 2010

Battlestar Galactica Cast
photo by dark chacal 2010

weave together a number of convoluted narrative threads that require rapt attention and even repeated viewings in order to understand. Characters often wrestle with contradictory motivations that complicate their behavior as they deal with ambiguous dilemmas for which there are no clearly right solutions. Viewers who take in shows like this are in effect attending brain gyms.” (Go to Rob Brezsny’s website for his full article.)

Great stories, intricate plot, and fascinating characters feed our imagination. Imagination might seem stifled by a constant diet of reality shows. However, imagination arises from the psyche and the psyche is difficult to manage. Like our bodies, it is best to feed psyche the highest level of nutrition available. Even though we may lack the best, there is still great potential to function well beyond our current level.

Of course, as a mythologist, I recommend mythology as a place to begin to feed the imagination quality nutrients, and, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the writers for the shows listed by Brezsny also dine at the mythology banquet.

Where’s the Sign Post?

One of the reasons for my interest in the Hero’s Journey is because I think I am living it.  In fact, I think it is a great schemata and metaphor for this journey we call Life.  However, if I am living the Hero’s Journey, then where exactly am I?

Image from

There are indications that I have been at the mid-point turn or “Ordeal” for quite some time; well beyond the three days and three nights of death and resurrection in many myths.  Wouldn’t it be great if I were about to begin the Return?!  Unfortunately, well, at least unfortunately from my ego’s point of view, I may still be in the Descent and have not yet reach the nadir.

In the language of the Hero’s Journey, the choices we face require us to leave the Ordinary World; a world that is familiar although possibly unpleasant.  The content of the “familiar” may be an attitude, a value, a behavior, some stance we hold in our life. Uninvited and unwanted, we feel stirrings. Because of this quickening, these familiar things that we never thought to question become curious, even odd.  In the language of Robert McKee, we reach a point of intolerable imbalance.

There are many ways to cope with this quickening we feel: deny, anesthetize, avoid, or heed. “The real choices in life will always involve the conflict between competing values, each of which has some considerable claim upon us.  Or there would be no difficulty in the first place.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life).

“Choices” and “conflicts”, words common to any screenwriter.  How do we choose between competing values that we hold dear?  Only one of the various coping mechanisms in this crisis of the Call leads us to take the most courageous option: Leave the Ordinary World and head into the Special World; that unknown and therefore frightening world.  To enter the Special World we are called to tolerate higher levels of anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity.  What do we risk by taking this journey?  Everything.  What do we gain by taking this journey?  Everything.

Well, guess what?  I am very clear that I have passed the first threshold and have entered my version of the Special World.  Wherever I am on this path, I can look back and see growth.  But that growth has been painful, challenging, and confusing.  And, I wouldn’t go back for any price.

“To know what is true for us, to feel what we really feel, to believe what makes sense of our unique journey—this is the essence of living a life of spiritual integrity.  Not easy, not common. Much harm is done when the integrity of one’s personal experience is violated on behalf of the group’s neurosis.  Damage is done to those who are denied permission to take a journey of personal discovery.” – James Hollis (On This Journey We Call Our Life)

Spiritual integrity is a new concept to me, but integrity is not.  In a world where honor is often equated with pride, integrity is losing to efficacy.  If you feel these stirring that I have been talking about, you will intuit the truth of your own spiritual integrity.  You discern that your journey to wholeness demands that you must step back and test the majority opinion.  To quote a famous song title: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”.

And equally true: I cannot abandon the search.  Regardless if I am still in the Descent or have completed the Initiation and am about to begin the Return, I must see this through.  It is, after all, my life.