The prospect of television as a means for education is not a new concept. In Charles Minnow’s 1961 address, “Television and the Public Interest,” he identifies TV as having the potential to be the “fourth great influence” on children – placing it alongside traditional institutions like home, school, and church. He asks, “Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children?” (5). This question, aimed at the potential for TV to serve an educational purpose (no longer a mere “wasteland”), remains relevant in a contemporary discussion of the relationship between television and its audience.
In his 1995 essay, “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” Charles McGrath mentions that, “For instance, if you watch enough “E.R.,” the hit show set in the busy emergency ward of a Chicago hospital (NBC, Thursday night), you can, without even knowing it, learn a lot about medicine.” (246). This extends Minnow’s plea for educational programming beyond children and into the realm of adult audiences – reinforcing and adding to the important question of the role television has to play in contemporary education. Similar shows like Fox’s “House” give even more modern viewers a comparable, rudimentary (albeit fantastical) crash course in diagnostic medicine. Whether these shows are just fostering a generation of hypochondriacs, or actually contributing to the education of their massive audiences is debatable; however, McGrath makes a moving point that ordinarily unavailable realms of knowledge (excluding those who practice medicine) are being made available in unprecedented ways to wide audiences through these types of shows. While they aren’t exhaustively teaching us to be doctors, they can teach us facts about medicine along the way.
Although seemingly working against Minnow’s plea for a companion to the home, school, and church, AMC’s “Breaking Bad” imparts similarly uncommon education to its audiences: the chemistry behind the production of meth. Going even further than either “E.R.” or “House,” the show nearly has its audience learning the synthesis and distribution of meth alongside its protagonists, Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul). I would argue that by having its “amateur” audience as captive (and eager) companions to Walt and Jesse, it takes the education process to a deeper and more intimate level. Walt’s extensive knowledge of chemistry, never far from the surface, coupled with his amateur status in the meth industry (at least initially) makes for an even more poignant viewer education. In fact, the show has its own science advisor, an organic chemistry professor from the University of Oklahoma (http://www.npr.org/2011/12/23/144190095/the-science-behind-breaking-bad), lending further credibility to its unconventional educational qualities for the exhaustive fan. It’s worth noting that the show cleverly avoids teaching its viewers how to actually make meth:
FLATOW: Are you ever fearful that he’ll give away the recipe, the real way – does he ever give away the real way to chemically make meth in a lab on the show?
NELSON: Oh, do they do that? Are you asking that? No, they don’t. That was actually one of the concerns of a lot of people, but Vince Gilligan has been very clever. You know, there are multiple ways to make meth. And so although his scenes are very accurate, he will sort of (unintelligible) together parts of different syntheses, so that if you just simply followed the one synthesis as it’s presented, you wouldn’t come out with methamphetamine.
These types of programs 50 years after Minnow’s plea in his 1961 address speak (in an almost ironic fashion) to the adaptive power of contemporary TV in the unconventional education of its audiences.