Television Can Be Literature

How stupid is it that a former school teacher can write a nutsy title like that?  If that were true, why don’t English classes just show movies all the time?  Why read?  Honestly, teachers do worse things to students every day.  Well-made film for the theater or television is literature, and it is relevant to study it.  When you are teaching kids to read, the ones who already read and devour books on their own are not your target audience.  The vast majority who hate reading need to be pulled into the miracle of being enfolded into a good a story, made to discuss and analyze why they liked it, made to determine what their own personal standards of good are, and taught how to find that for themselves, in the theater, on TV, and yes, even in books.  So, why does an idiot former school teacher think about stupid stuff like this?  Well, my brain has been permanently wired for that kind of thinking.  And now that I am retired and have time for stuff like Netflix, I am discovering just that sort of monumental epic literature that I have always sought in television shows, of all places!


I just finished watching the final episode of The West Wing on Netflix.  I was completely absorbed by this seven-season show for the entire summer.  And now I have finished it.  And this essay is the first symptom of withdrawal that is going to hit like the black plague.  I am not going to do a review of it.  Others have done better at it than I ever could.  Here is a bit or evidence for that at this link; Contemplating Media on WordPress  or this one; Arts.Mic

I am telling you why this show is indispensable literature and powerful, functional art.   It is because it just IS!  The writing on this show by Aaron Sorkin is seven seasons’ worth of vibrant, lively, in-depth, and funny stories that keep you tuning in at a higher level of gravity than any mere soap opera.  You learn to love or hate the many characters you get to know so well, and you have to find out what happens to each of them in each and every episode.

I most identified with the character of Joshua Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford.  I once was a young and idealistic man who believed that my passion for ideas could change the world and make it better.  I too fell to the hammer blows of cruel reality.  When Josh was shot as collateral damage in a presidential assassination attempt, it brought me back to the dark years of teaching when I almost quit after having my life threatened and my tires slashed by students.  I was in his skin too when it came time to put myself back together and make myself whole enough again to continue doing my job.  Good literature is like that.  It holds up a mirror in front of our shocked little faces and shows us exactly who we are and what we have to do about it.  Here is the scene that made the waterworks flow the hardest, after Josh has seen a psychologist to help him overcome his PTSD;

For seven seasons this TV show maintained a high level of powerful storytelling and life-changing meaning.  I can’t begin to tell you how well this has helped me understand politics and good people.  There is no other kind of literature that can do what a series like this can do.  And this is not the only one.  I can name any number of other series I felt the same way about over the years and had to find some way to watch every episode I could; there was Alex Haley’s Roots, Shogun and Centennial (both epic mini-series), Lonesome Dove, Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Ken Burns’ Baseball, Hill Street Blues, Mork and Mindy, Cosmos (both the Carl Sagan original and the new Neil DeGrasse Tyson versions), and, of course, Dr. Who in all his incarnations.  In some ways television series like these have given me more and done more to make me the man I am, than any single teacher or parent or grandparent I ever had.  It doesn’t replace any of those essential people, but, boy! does it ever supplement!


Filed under humor, review of television, TV as literature

4 responses to “Television Can Be Literature

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I have been thinking about doing what you did as I never watched the series. I liked what Aaron Sorkin did with The Newsroom, so that is part of the appeal.

  2. Well thanks a lot. Now I have to add The West Wing to my ever growing list of must watch TV shows and movies. 😉 I appreciate your appreciation of various forms of media and how they can also be considered literature. I applaud you for continuing to teach after your life was threatened and your tires were slashed. Thanks again for another fun to read and thought provoking post.

    • I appreciate your appreciation of my appreciation of various forms of literature found in media… urm, I think I tied a knot in this comment and am not sure how to straighten it out again. Well, thank you for the thank yous… dang!

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