Every new TV season I make this suggestion. And at this state of history, the suggestion is even more interesting. Starting about 10 years ago, and increasingly so today, you may have noticed a lot of TV shows and movies have been questioning reality. There’s all sorts of shows about time travel, about consciousness, beliefs and parallel universes etc. etc.
In addition, there are also fantasies that give us our wishes and then asks us if we like what we got. These are shows like Brave New World, based on the brilliant and very prescient book from the 1930’s that essentially predicted today and the world’s mood drugs and the curious rave-like detachment from normal reality that they create.
What’s most important about the show is the central question it asks us: if we could always be happy and satisfied all the time, with all of our negative emotions muted, would we still find life meaningful? And what do we sacrifice by pursuing that happiness?
Brave New World is like a meditation that, in a roundabout way, attempts to do part of what this blog does. It helps us see that, without contrast, anything enjoyable loses its value. But how many viewers are noticing this depth in the production?
In a lot of cases today, media is produced with more focus on superficial things, and it is viewed and/or heard in less focused and serious ways. So people will be on their phones or visiting with friends and only giving partial attention to the artistic work they’re viewing. As a result, people talk about great ‘scenes’ or ‘characters’ but they less often mention that the stories changed them.
I remember when The King’s Speech came out. Most people saw it by accident. The title scared them away. Yet even young film students I knew described it as powerful and surprising. And they likely had little idea of the drama that is added by having knowledge about that general era and its politics.
What was important about the story was that it evoked change in many people. It asked questions about class, about security, about family and about friendship and the nature of courage. But in the end, it was really about a man discovering that the most important approval a man can get, is through his own sense of self confidence.
The King’s Speech is a classic, in-the-shadow-of-my-parent story. It’s about a person learning to like themselves and we all need help with that. That’s what makes it the sort of film that can reach across time and age to leave today’s audiences better off than they were before they saw it.
Of course, that kind of depth isn’t in every project unfortunately. But it’s there more often than it is noticed. But it’s often less slick looking, so it attracts less attention. It’s harder to convince someone under 40 that The King’s Speech could be as good as the next superhero film.
With the shiny superficial stuff, there’s no point in taking it in deeply because there is little there. The effect is similar to using a superficial approach to take in something deeply meaningful. In one case there will be no point, and in the latter we will miss whatever point is there.
As an example of this, it’s possible to just watch a show and only see the plot. I’ve talked about this before in relation to the film Die Hard. On the surface it’s a movie about a cop stopping some terrorist thieves. In reality it’s about a misogynist learning to respect his wife.
All quality film and TV involves an A story that forms the plot. But what’s added is the B story, about how the events in the plot serve to affect or change the protagonist. That’s where the meat is.
One of the most interesting parts of David Shore’s shows, House and The Good Doctor, is not what they tell us about high functioning doctors, it’s what those doctors expose about us, the ‘normal people.’
In those series, the lead characters have no social grace. And yet it is those characters that help us see the inhumanity and cruelty that we engage in –things that are often byproducts of the very social ‘skills’ that we pride ourselves on –but that prevent us from being authentic.
If being rude to someone can save their life, then the rudeness is an act of love. But 90% of people will have their thoughts make them uncomfortable with exercising that form of love. So whereas Doctors House and Murphy can often act, others are crippled by busier thinking that’s trying to find ways not to look bad when that has nothing to do with the patient.
We also shouldn’t assume that the shows diving for more meaning are all serious or that they will look deep on the surface. For instance, Two and Half Men and The Big Bang Theory are produced by the same genius, Chuck Lorre. But the first show is funny with some depth. But the second show has it’s funny built around its depth, because that show is all about judgment and acceptance.
In Seinfeld the main characters always start by going for something selfish and they end up worse off for it. If people watch the episodes of The Big Bang Theory closely, they’ll see that judgment leads to pain, and acceptance leads to growth and beauty.
In Friends, in every episode the friendships get threatened and then re-established. But with The Big Bang Theory, everyone is awkwardly together because that group of friends are the only people who accept each other and sees their value. Thinking about those dynamics can add a ton of poignancy to the scenes in that show.
Now think of your favourite show. In what ways is every episode the same? Find that, and you find the show’s point. The repetition of that idea is the heart of the show. We watch Friends to see how the characters will recover in the third act, from what they did in the first. Every week. That’s the heart of that show.
So what is the point of me telling you this? Why do I do it each new TV season? Because it’s possible for you to turn your TV and movie viewing into a spiritual meditation.
Even superheros are based on how outcasts feel. Superman is was given up for adoption. Batman lost his parents as a kid. Ironman needs his freedom. And Wonder Woman was created by a psychologist, in response to a WWII, and the rise of feminism.
For any good writer, the reason they write something is why it exists. And that is often a big idea that relates to being human, or about our shared humanity. This can even be seen in funny, seemingly light fare, like Schitt’s Creek.
What elevates that show from the average comedy is its beauty. Because it shows us how a disconnected, superficial, ego-focused family is forced to work their way through enough awkwardness that they all grow to see the value in authentic human interactions, and in each other.
The show subtly says a ton about society. It’s a very unique mix of very funny and very sweet. That said, comedy is always about personal taste, so with all of these shows, we can personally love or hate them. The point is for us to find the good ones that strike us as meaningful sources of personal growth, all while being very entertaining.
What movies or TV shows have impacted you? Was it the journey of a single character that you related to? Or was it the themes that made the world bigger and more nuanced to you? What lead you to ask deep and meaningful questions?
Did West World cause you to question what video games do to our consciousness? Did it cause you to question our morality towards those we see as different? Did The Sopranos change how you saw criminals, or what it means to be tough? Did it make gangsterism less glamorous and more pedestrian, more human?
Did something like Wife Swap get you to reconsider your value and question how you are treated, or how you treat others? Did The Imitation Game get you to reconsider the value of difficult types of people? Did Life is Beautiful teach you about how thoughts create reality?
We can all watch light fare and enjoy it and we should feel no guilt about that. But if the show we’re watching was given depth by its writers, then we usually gain from finding that depth.
The next time you see something that captivates you, ask yourself more questions about how and why it does that? What is it that’s hooking you? What was the writer’s intent? And if it’s in the form of the series, then we should look for those themes to evolve throughout a season.
Every experience is a reflection of ourselves. We like the shows we like for reasons. And it’s a worthwhile meditation for us to consciously figure out what those reasons are and why they matter to us.
Also, finally, if you have any recommendations for deep shows that can change how we see things, feel free to let me know in the comments below, or via my feeds on facebook or twitter. I’m always looking to grow and to see high quality art.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.