The Bochco Code

When I was a child, I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons

I felt a little queasy when I saw the following article in the NYT Magazine: “Watching TV Makes You Smarter.” Not that it isn’t a good article; it is. It’s about the cognitive demands placed on viewers by today’s complex multi-threaded television shows: The Sopranos, Deadwood, yadda yadda yadda. Hill Street Blues gets a nod as the big innovator of multi-threaded arc-within-arc storytelling, though the structure obviously comes from soap operas and from serialized fiction before that (as Jonathan Dresner notes).

It’s a fun read, and it’s flattering to be told that when I appear to be sprawled on the futon watching Lost, I’m actually getting a cognitive workout. The argument may be a little overdrawn. The lesson I take away isn’t that TV makes us smarter—that’s the sort of pesky determinism that gets my historian of technology hackles up, and besides if watching a lot of TV made you smart, I ought to be a Harvard PhD or something. But I can agree that the craft of television writing is changing and advancing. And people like to feel smart, and good TV bores us marginally less than bad. The article also features some discussion of The West Wing’s characteristic questions-first answers-later trick, and it argues that reality shows like Survivor and The Apprentice are not about voyeurism so much as game theory and strategy.

Steven Johnson, the author of the Times article, is clearly my kind of geek. He goes so far as to graph out the intertwining of story threads within a few sample shows. The horizontal axes represent time, and the vertical axes represent the different storylines in each episode:

Starsky & Hutch
Hill Street Blues
The Sopranos

If we accept the idea of geekdom as a “third culture” that combines the creative impulses of the arts on the one hand and the rational-mechanical impulses of science and engineering on the other, this is a very characteristic geek endeavor: disassembling pieces of fiction in a mechanical way to see what makes them tick. I know it’s something I do all the time. (To, I am certain, my wife’s unwavering delight.)

The queasiness I mentioned above comes from a deviated septum operation I had when I was 17. It went pretty badly and I was on heavy-duty painkillers for a week or two, my days split by the pills into six-hour cycles of pain and psychedelic fever dreams. I had taped a Hill Street Blues marathon and was watching it during brief interludes of lucidity. I was struck by the now-familiar, then-fairly-novel phenomena Johnson describes: the way each episode of Hill Street juggled a number of plots, setting up future stories, recalling past ones, and rotating the spotlight from character to character. But under the influence of those mind-altering meds, I just about went insane one night with a feverish “figuring” dream. You know the kind where you feel an compelled to solve some meaningless problem to impose order on the crazy chaos in your mind? The form this particular fever took was an obsessive drive to reverse engineer the story structure of Hill Street. Like Causabon looking for the ur-myth in Middlemarch; like there was some mathematical formulae to decipher—Steven Bochco’s Philosopher Stone. I think (or did I just dream it?) I filled half a notebook that night with crazy threaded diagrams of Hill Street storylines, imagined and real. And the diagrams I drew looked exactly like the ones in that Times article. Except I believe I drew mine vertically rather than horizontally. And since my nose was still bleeding from the operation, they may have been lightly stippled with my blood.

The madmen of earlier eras imbued their afflictions with grandeur. They imagined the voice of Allah in their head, or black instructions from the Devil. Me, I try to discern the Fibonacci sequence connecting Frank Furillo’s alcoholism to the frequency of Mick Belker’s phone calls from his mother.

If I ever want to replace the tagline of my website, I’ve got a good one ready: “Rob MacDougall. Thinking WAAAAY too hard about television since 1989.”