Before the birth of “TV,” 18th Century British author Samuel Johnson once argued that a story was only truly superior if it was a faithful “mirror of nature.” He said:
Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature. Particular manners can be known to few, and therefore few only can judge how nearly they are copied. The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight awhile . . . but the pleasure of sudden wonder is soon exhausted, and the mind can only repose on the stability of truth.
If television is a medium for stories, Johnson’s argument applies to what is displayed on the tube. Many of us enjoy watching Glee, for example, for its glamour and musical skill. But unless we spot in the characters something that matches our own human experience, fanciful invention will sooner or later cease to inspire us. This is perhaps the reason, as adults, we are unable to watch the cartoons of our youth. Looney Toons, somewhere along the way, ceased to inspire our imaginations. Our life experiences made us too large for the sort of entertainment it offers.
Yet despite entertainment purposes, television can offer rare moments of truth that challenge us intellectually and morally.
Take last week’s episode of Fringe, for example. For all its scientific intrigue and suspense, the relationship between main character Walter Bishop and antagonist Dr. Alistair Peck makes it one of the best of the season.
Their shared position as great men of science, and Walter’s personal experiences, allows Walter the ability to identify with Peck and his desire to resurrect his fiancé through the means of science. Unlike the government agents who merely seek to thwart Peck’s intentions, Walter is the only person capable of connecting to him, and consequently, the only one able to articulate the moral challenges that stem from his desire.
Tim Grierson from New York Magazine’s “Vulture” comments:
The two actors made [the story] riveting, particularly when Walter confronted Peck man-to-man. In their exchange, where Walter warned Peck that changing the past only leads to more problems, Fringe had one of those rare moments where you got the sense that Walter was talking to someone at his own level. Perhaps not surprisingly, that kinship inspired this devoted man of science to admit to Peck that his rescuing of the alternate-universe Peter made him believe in God for the first time.
The scene is embedded below:
Moments like this are compelling not because Walter expresses what might be the beginnings of faith in God, but because his struggle between human loss and his human limitations are brought to light in a way that every viewer can understand.
Walter also recognizes that there are boundaries to human ambition within science, especially when it comes to human lives. This particular theme cycles again and again throughout the series and it is one we as viewers should grapple with as we live in a culture steeped in scientific aspirations.
But even while entrenched within a plot beyond many of our own personal experiences, we see a familiar struggle fixed in human relationships and sacrificial love for those dearest to us.
As I continue to watch, I am amazed to what depth writers will take their viewers. This may be a result of the fact that, as Dylan Peterson says, “America runs on Jesus.” Yet apart from an explicit Christian context, in order to be “good art,” to tell good stories, television shows must truthfully mirror life.
It must depict humanity’s most basic needs and desires by telling stories we can all relate to. Shows like Fringe remind us of what it means to be human.
Television may be bad for my health, but excellent scripts? Good for my humanity.
Photo by Brandon King. ‘