Philosophy professor discusses aesthetic value of television

While my interview with Dr. Heller was more focused on the role of music on college students both on campus and after graduation, my discussion with Dr. Kania turned to complex, abstract philosophical discussion almost immediately.

What did you think of Breaking Bad, with Bryan Cranston?

I enjoyed it, though I must say as someone who tends not to watch a lot of TV I probably went into it with a lot of high expectations because people would tell me “well, if you’re going to watch one television series, it should be Breaking Bad,” so there’s that. On the other hand, there seems to be a fairly wide spread of evaluations, in terms of what people agree on, that this is one of the best TV shows in recent years. It seems like going in with high expectations shouldn’t have led to disappointment. But I did feel where it didn’t”¦

The basic sort of objection, my preference for films over television shows, if you watch the whole thing, it demands so much of a time commitment that it needs to pay that off. It needs to be at least as good as, at least as rewarding as, watching the same number of films.

Now, that’s extremely reductive, there’s all sorts of ways you could actually complicate them. Something like that is underlying my preference for films over television shows.

I don’t think there’s some essential reason that television shows can’t be as good as films. For example, i think The Wire could pass this test, possibly. Could be better than watching a collection of films of somewhat relatively equal quality, would take up the same amount of time. I must say, having said that, I actually only watched half of The Wire. I don’t remember why, but for some reason we couldn’t make it through the 3rd season. Not sure what was going on in my life or what. Up until that point, it seemed so rich and unified and balanced well the demands of the episode versus the season versus the entire series. For instance, one of the things I was disappointed with, when I watched the first episode of Breaking Bad, then when I continued to watch season after season, was that, it didn’t do anything, didn’t do very much, with the large canvas that the season and series format allows.

For instance, I was looking for this very slow development, transition of a person from a kind of decent, average person to a kind of amoral psychopath or something like that. And it seemed that this transition happened almost completely in the first episode. Of course you could give reasons, explanations for that, for the economics of television for why they had to do that. I could imagine ways that it could have happened halfway in the first episode, foreshadowed or something, but it didn’t happen that way. Constantly things were being introduced in Breaking Bad that seemed could be long-form arcs or symbols or machinery that was going to do something in a later episode, period. And then failed to make use of them. Some of them which did kind of get left hanging for a long time resolved in very uninteresting ways, they didn’t seem to pay off the wait. The one I remember, it’s been a while, is the death of Jesse’s first girlfriend.

Walt observes her die, it raises interesting ethical questions of watching someone die versus actively killing them versus passively letting them die, and it seemed like okay, you know it’s in the background, this is going to do some narrative work at some point. But it never does. All sorts of complicated plot happens and at the last episode he says to Jesse, “Oh, I watched your girlfriend die.” It’s like, what was the point of leaving it for that long, 10 minutes before Walt dies?

It seems to be evidence for my view, against the other view, that television provides a larger canvas to paint on.

In television though, like you said you wanted from Breaking Bad, you can potentially get characters who change very slowly over time, sometimes corrupting or morphing into someone bad, over time. Isn’t that doing more of what film can do, watching a character change over the course of a narrative?

Sure, I think they can, the question is whether you can justify all of those hours. If you write a 1,000 page novel, it should probably be three times as good as the 300 page novel, a struggle writers and editors often have.

You can think of it like an assignment in a philosophy course. You’re not going to solve philosophical dilemmas in a five-page paper. You won’t solve them in a book, either! (Laughs.) The question is, what more can you do in a book? And the idea is, typically, is that you can do more with that kind of larger canvas, you can introduce a whole structure, address a bunch of objections, reply to them, in a kind of unified way. Which of course you can’t do in what, one twentieth of that book. So the question is of course, complicated. But it’s something like that, like of course you can do something more, you can show a more gradual sort of change over nine seasons with 12 one-hour episodes [each], than you can in 90 minutes, a standard movie length.

But one question is, are they actually doing this? In Breaking Bad, I would suggest that they’re trying to do that but there’s a lot of incoherence, Walt is just going back and forth ethically the whole time. And you might say, “Well, isn’t that sort of like real life?” But you maybe don’t really need five seasons for that, do you?

Another question is, even if they are doing it, does it sort of meet that cost-benefit analysis we talked about. Is it worth all those hours?

Interesting. If we can get away from dramas for a minute, I wanted to get your general opinion on television comedies in terms of “artwork”-ness.

Seinfeld might be a good example. A lot of people think Seinfeld is just the classic comedy example. It got better and better as it went along, really cleverly constructed plot despite the terrible acting, at least on the part of Jerry Seinfeld. Well, you can’t really criticize Seinfeld for failing to deal with deep issues, because it never tried to do that. Now, it could be that that means a sitcom can never achieve the greatness of a drama, but yeah, it’s complicated.

The point about things that are designed to make people see themselves, something like that, it’s not obvious to me that something like The Wire isn’t like that. I mean, it’s likely that people who listen to NPR and share those political views are the ones most likely to enjoy The Wire, so it’s a complicated issue.

I was excited to interview both accomplished professors and get their opinions on a variety of topics. Of course, my own predilection for television and media may have diverted a lot of Dr. Kania’s time to those subjects, but he opened my mind on a lot of different issues related to media.

I hope to get great thoughts from other faculty on campus in the coming weeks.