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Turning on the TV doesn’t mean turning off your brain

To the Globe commenter who exclaims ‘go read a book’: It’s time to turn the page

Keith Carradine (left) and Timothy Olyphant in "Deadwood," among the shows during TV's Golden Age that reward viewers who appreciate fine storytelling.
Keith Carradine (left) and Timothy Olyphant in "Deadwood," among the shows during TV's Golden Age that reward viewers who appreciate fine storytelling.SAM EMERSON/HBO via AP

There was a time when being a TV critic was a little bit outlaw. OK, so it was just in the world of the arts, and the dangerous weapon of choice was a plastic remote.

But, prior to about 2000, I was accustomed to encountering blank eyes and tight lips whenever the subject of favorite TV shows came up. “I only watch PBS” was a not-uncommon comment, and the “It will rot your brain” and “It’s entertainment not art” points-of-view were alive and kicking people like me in the gut.

At this point, with so many serialized cable and streaming series winning literary respect, with celebrated movie stars, screenwriters, and directors eager to do TV, and with university classes on “The Wire” and scholarship on Nietzsche, Plato, and “The Sopranos,” that kind of thinking seems stubbornly dated. We know, generally, that the medium is responsible for some of the best-written storytelling of the turn-of-the-millennium era. We also know that we now have the power to select the smarter content from TV’s massive library of choices, so we are no longer doomed to be force-fed TV junk food like “My Mother the Car.”

But still the old-school judge-iness rears its head on occasion, and sometimes it even pops up in the comments sections of my TV stories online. Some Globe reader has gone to the trouble of clicking on an article that’s clearly labeled TV in order to exclaim, “Go read a book” to me and the others reading and commenting therein. I suspect that he and other booksplainers aren’t rushing into the comments on books stories to exclaim, “Go watch some TV,” although that might at least be kind of funny.

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First of all, Sir Book Worm, people who watch TV can and do read books, and vice-versa. Beyond that, the question of whether TV is worthwhile is more about what exactly you choose to watch than the fact that you are watching.

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There are lousy shows that constitute a waste of time or worse, dreck like “Tiger King” or anything having to do with Honey Boo Boo or Mama June. Then there are escapist series, there as vehicles to some other place, for those times when you want to turn off your brain, which I guarantee you are allowed to do. And finally there are shows, most of them scripted, that challenge you to piece the stories together and think hard about something — morality, perhaps, or mortality, or our technological future. TV is a writer’s medium, whereas movies mostly belong to directors, so some of the best screenwriters out there are putting their names on seasons of episodes.

Worm, there are lousy books, too, books that can constitute a waste a time or worse — “Mein Kampf,” for example, or “Love and Marriage” by Bill Cosby. There are easy-to-read books that keep you distracted, and there are excellent books that press you to ponder Big Things. If a person had to choose between reading “A Gronking to Remember: Book One in the Rob Gronkowski Erotica Series” or watching “Black Mirror,” surely you would recommend the latter, right?

I know that reading is considered active, and watching TV is considered passive, but that dichotomy is simplistic and passé. I’m not going to go on about the so-called Golden Age of TV and the rich provocations waiting for someone who watches the likes of “Breaking Bad” or “Deadwood” — the psychological motivations to study, the visual gems to mine, the subtleties of language to enjoy. I’ve been singing the praises of those shows for years, because they do ask the viewer to use some imagination, to ruminate while watching, and to cogitate between episodes. They may not be as intellectually challenging as William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” but they do invite and sometimes require active reflection. They don’t push the imagination in the same way as books, but they do engage the mind nonetheless.

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They can also be experienced with other people, which is a nice plus. Sure, you can read James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” aloud to a group of friends — but I don’t see that happening very often, Worm, no matter how social you are.

Anyway, my dear Worm, I don’t want to live in a world without good books and good TV, and I don’t want to be in a position of having to choose only one. I appreciate your reminders, which you loyally tack on to my stories, no doubt hoping to save the sinking souls of those planning to do some hardcore bingeing in the near future. But your efforts are in vain. The days of TV shame are over.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.