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TV Is Art--Why Don't You Watch?

“I don’t watch TV.” That’s got to be the most common response I hear whenever I get giddy about my favorite subject, and while it isn’t exclusive to Harvard, I encounter it here most often. I’ve never heard any of my classmates say that they don’t see movies, don’t read novels, or don’t like art, but when it comes to the idiot box, the claws come out. And in some ways, I can understand why. Television is home to some of the worst indulgences in American culture. It’s peppered with ads. It’s oddly time-sucking in a way other entertainments aren’t; no one’s ever looked up suddenly to find they’ve wasted eight hours in a George Eliot novel or an Ingmar Bergman marathon. But with all of these considerations in mind, television is still an art form, a medium. No one stops going to see movies just because some films aren’t as good as “The Godfather,” yet plenty of the smartest, most art-loving people I know never watch a minute of television. And that’s a real shame.

In a lot of ways, “Battlestar Galactica,” which began its fourth and final season three weeks ago, is the emblematic example of my frequent defenses of television. Everything about it shouldn’t work. Besides being a television show—a television show that’s a remake of an old, bad television show—it’s also science fiction. Still, it has managed to be one of the best shows on television. Now before you start picturing me playing D&D; in a fedora and a Hot Topic t-shirt, let me just say that I don’t really like science fiction as a rule. Growing up, I dug the gems, like “Ender’s Game” and the Douglas Adams books, but my ability to estimate quality doesn’t turn off when something’s set in space; if anything, I share the general cultural prejudice against the genre. Which is the shaker’s worth of salt grains you should take when I tell you that I think “Battlestar Galactica” is a really wonderful show.

“Battlestar” is the story of a small group of humans who survive a nuclear holocaust perpetuated by robots known as the Cylons. In the traditional vein of human-robot relations, we built them, they got too smart, and they took over. Even more eerily, some of them are now built to look just like humans, and it’s difficult to tell them apart from the real thing, making the conflict all the more fraught. The surviving dregs of humanity—including military commander William Adama (Edward James Olmos) and President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell)—decide to search for a new home on a mythical planet called Earth, with the attacking Cylons close behind.

Wait a second, you say: this sounds suspiciously like “Star Trek,” from the military bent to the evil aliens. You would be correct, were it not for an essential difference: character development. “Star Trek,” as my astute boyfriend once put it, is like an Ayn Rand novel; characters don’t do anything of their own accord, but are just placeholders for ideas, and everything resolves neatly in the end. “Battlestar” is very different. Its characters are so complicated and troubled that they border on self-destructive. This isn’t to say the show lacks big issues; over three seasons of ”Battlestar,” the writers have introduced topics ranging from an Iraq-like occupation to electoral fraud to the ethics of a preemptive strike. None of these issues, however, come about without the decisions of complex characters. And that’s what sets “Battlestar” apart from other series.

As people, we consume entertainment not just out of boredom or a need to keep up with the Joneses, but because of a love of characters. We’re fascinated by other people, and the more real they seem, the better. We empathize with Holden Caulfield, Elizabeth Bennet, and Jay Gatsby; we agonize over their fictional decisions with a rigor comparable to the way we analyze our own. “Battlestar” has amazing characters, so numerous and well-developed that I could spend an entire extra article telling you about how terrific they are. But what’s the point if you’re already set against the medium in which they appear?

When you deny yourself television, you’re denying yourself access to what may be one of the greatest means of getting to know great characters. Long-running, well-written shows like “Battlestar” have breadth and depth of character that films can’t touch and that rival even the best novels. Yes, there’s lots of crap on TV, no question. But crap shouldn’t prevent you from seeing the good in television, especially as more great shows crop up every day. Watching TV shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of; it should be something to appreciate—a medium unique from any other. So don’t be afraid to say you do watch television, or that it’s made you understand more, taught you things you didn’t know, moved you. That’s what art does. And television is art.

—Columnist Allie T. Pape can be reached at pape@fas.harvard.edu.
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