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“Watching TV Makes You Smarter” by Steven Johnson Essay

The process of watching TV shows and series is usually discussed as an easy entertainment for the audience. In his work “Watching TV Makes You Smarter”, Steven Johnson claims that certain TV shows can be discussed as “a kind of cognitive workout, not as a series of life lessons” (Johnson 171). As a result, watching TV, persons can stimulate their brain activity and become smarter.

However, Johnson’s choice of mentally stimulating TV shows is rather limited because he concentrates on popular TV series with many narrative threads important to be followed by the audience. The Mentalist is the CBS show which was premiered in 2008. The show follows the standard pattern typical for criminal series where one mystery is solved in one episode.

Nevertheless, The Mentalist differs from other criminal series because Patrick Jane, a mentalist and consultant in the California Bureau of Investigation (CBI), tries to find a serial killer known as Red John in all episodes, and more narrative threads are involved in the basic narrative scheme with each season. The example of a criminal ‘tangle’ made of many threads is Episode 16 in Season 3 of The Mentalist titled as “Red Queen” (“The Mentalist: Red Queen, Season 3, Episode 16”).

Although “Red Queen” is based on solving one mystery of killing an antiques dealer, viewers receive the opportunity to stimulate their cognition because of the necessity solve a range of additional mysteries proposed by the authors; thus, according to Johnson, this episode supports the importance of focusing on missing information, of proposing several narrative lines, and of demonstrating complicated relations.

“Red Queen” is characterized by using the elements of the reverse narrative in order to make the audience not only think in the logical order but also follow the clues in the reverse narrative. The modern audience often chooses the pleasure of solving puzzles, and The Mentalist provides the viewers with such an opportunity in each episode. That is why, “Red Queen” starts with the provocative scenes in which Patrick Jane is at gun point because of Agent Hightower’s actions (“The Mentalist: Red Queen, Season 3, Episode 16”).

The scenes provoke the audience’s surprise because Jane and Hightower are friends and because Hightower is one of leaders in the CBI. Thus, viewers should focus on some missing information in order to understand the observed scenes while thinking over the other aspects of the TV show.

It is possible to speak about certain cognitive processes explained by Johnson in his essay: “You have to focus to follow the plot, and in focusing you’re exercising the parts of your brain that map social networks, that fill in missing information, that connect multiple narrative threads” (Johnson 179). From this point, the audience’s tries to find the missing explanation before they can watch it stimulate the mental processes significantly.

The use of the reverse narrative is an effective approach to mislead viewers and make them solve puzzles more actively because of presenting different clues. On the one hand, to follow the puzzle presented with the help of the reverse narrative is easier than to solve the mystery with many unknowns because all the clues lead to the known final point.

On the other hand, to start from the end means to make the audience think over all the possible scenarios which could lead to the first scenes. Following Johnson, in order to resolve the puzzle of the TV show, “you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships” (Johnson 170). Referring to the first scenes in “Red Queen”, viewers pay more attention to all the presented details in order to find the personal explanation to the situation when Jane can be killed by Hightower.

TV shows with many threads are more preferable because they make viewers follow more details, aspects, elements, and build more connections. This idea is supported by Johnson, who discusses multiple narrative lines as the key to stimulate the brain activities. According to Johnson, “attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads” are not only results of reading but also the results of working with multiple narrative lines in TV shows (Johnson 172).

However, it is impossible to agree with the author that the number of narrative lines is often the main factor to influence the stimulating potential of the TV series. In “Red Queen”, viewers continue to guess who can be Red John, try to solve the puzzle of the antiques dealer’s murder, focus on the mystery of LaRoche’s personality, and analyze whether Hightower can work for Red John (“The Mentalist: Red Queen, Season 3, Episode 16”). Therefore, “Red Queen” can be discussed as a highly mentally stimulating episode with many narrative threads.

“Red Queen” serves to stimulate the audience’s thinking process because the authors use the elements of the scientific and pseudoscientific teachings in the narrative while describing the behaviors of characters and developing their complicated relationships. Johnson claims that the viewer can stimulate his or her thinking while analyzing the nature of the characters’ relations and contacts (Johnson 170).

Thus, how can viewers characterize the relationships between Jane and Hightower? Is it friendship or enmity? What can viewers understand about the character of J. J. LaRoche, a CBI chief, who collects the Hummel figurines, while referring to LaRoche and Jane’s conversation? Thus, Jane asks LaRoche in the episode: “LaRoche, you have a house and a fluffy white dog.

Are those Hummel figurines?”, and Jane continues that he could not imagine that LaRoche was living in an actual house instead of “a burrow on a riverbank or something like that” (“The Mentalist: Red Queen, Season 3, Episode 16”). The viewers pay attention to this characterization provided by Jane because they are used to focusing on Jane’s words.

The behavior of Patrick Jane, who can notice details hidden for anyone else, is one more puzzle for the audience because the motivation related to his unexpected actions is surprising, and viewers can only guess why the human behavioral expert Jane acts this or that way. According to Johnson, such exercises in understanding the human psychology are also important for the audience because of the additional training in social interaction and real life relationships (Johnson 175).

The ability of Jane to notice specific details and draw conclusions referring to those aspects is the main zest associated with The Mentalist. That is why, while trying to understand what plan is developed by Jane to save the life of Agent Hightower and to avoid the revenge of Red John, the audience can solve multiple puzzles at a time (“The Mentalist: Red Queen, Season 3, Episode 16”).

It is possible to state that following the narrative lines in “Red Queen”, viewers try to refer to methods and tricks typically used by Jane when he is solving one more mystery. Thus, the audience can indirectly develop observation and analytical thinking abilities. From this perspective, such popular TV series and criminal dramas as The Mentalist can be considered to be a good alternative to reading a detective story in order to train mental abilities.

Steven Johnson’s essay “Watching TV Makes You Smarter” can provoke many discussions because people are used to consider TV shows as the activity which makes the audience lazy and inactive. Although the author’s argument can be discussed as rather controversial, it is important to state that Johnson’s ideas are related to a range of criminal shows where the narrative line is single or where there are many narrative threads.

The main focus in these stories is often on an impressing mystery. In spite of the fact that Johnson mostly refers to TV shows with many narrative threads as stimulating the cognitive activities, The Mentalist based on one main narrative line is good to stimulate the intellectual development because this show is an example of a new type of TV series where the process of solving mysteries encourages and motivates the audience to think actively while watching TV.

Episode 16 in Season 3 of The Mentalist titled as “Red Queen” provides the audience with a lot of hints and clues in order to develop the analytical thinking and focus on the nature of personal and social relationships. Furthermore, the secret of the TV series is in providing such interesting theories as mentalism as the background of the characters’ activities. As a result, viewers perceive and follow the experience of the characters, and they can also try to develop their mental and intuitive abilities following the viewed pattern.

Works Cited

Johnson, Steven. Watching TV Makes You Smarter. n.d. PDF file.

The Mentalist: Red Queen, Season 3, Episode 16. 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 09 Sept. 2014. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1815441/>.

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1. IvyPanda. "“Watching TV Makes You Smarter” by Steven Johnson." April 3, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/watching-tv-makes-you-smarter-by-steven-johnson-essay/.


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IvyPanda. (2020) '“Watching TV Makes You Smarter” by Steven Johnson'. 3 April.

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