According to Steven Johnson, the popular TV shows have become more challenging and complicated involving multiple threading and social networking. They make the audiences smarter. By randomly comparing one episode from two sitcoms: I Love Lucy (1951) and Friends (2004), I have found the same heightened complexity and challenge that is claimed in today’s TV shows.
Creating tangible charts of threading for these two shows, I have noticed that Friends has more threads and more complicated layout of threading. For I Love Lucy – Lucy goes to the hospital, the chart of its threading (see Appendix 1) is a straight line like in Dragnet provided by Johnson. During the first 12 minutes, the two lead characters Lucy and Vicky are staying at their home to wait for the timing of Lucy’s giving birth. Then, the last 13 minutes, they go to the hospital and Lucy finally gives birth to a baby. In this episode, the event that Lucy goes to the hospital works as a sole thread throughout the whole episode. Scenes at each minute are bound to that thread. The audiences can easily follow the thread. However, for Friends, the chart of its threading includes three threads, which is more complicated. According to the Appendix 1, this episode contains three time threads, the same number as I Love Lucy has. They are: Phoebe and Mike want to donate their wedding funds; Chandler and Monica wait for the adoption lady; Ross and Rachel take their daughter to the playground. Pieces of these threads are scattered into different time periods. The audiences need to follow these threads simultaneously. This requires the audiences more capabilities to remember information instantly and to switch their thinking as narratives switch. Therefore, the audiences get involved in more cognitive works while watching Friends, compared with I Love Lucy.
Besides multiple threading, social networking varies from these two shows. Focusing on social networking, I have found that Friends contains much more characters and more complicated social relationships. In the episode of I Love Lucy, Vicky and Lucy are two lead characters (see Appendix 2). They dominate the development of the show. Other characters, for example Fred and Ethel, play supporting roles in this episode. They help Lucy go to the hospital, but how they act in the shows rarely affects the development of the show. The audiences can simply focus on the social networking between Vicky and Lucy. This social networking is pretty simple. However, in Friends, there are six lead characters in the shows. Each character has distinct relationships with other lead characters (see Appendix 2). For example, Chandler and Monica love each other; Joey hangs out with Chandler more often than with Ross; Rachel and Ross have a kid, but they are separated. That kind of social networking trains the audiences to memorize complicated relationships among characters. Moreover, this social networking keeps changing as the seasons change. For instance, in the 1st season, Monica doesn’t like Chandler at all. Rachel once feels Joey is very cute. Nonetheless, these attitudes change in the following seasons. Many changes of social networking happen throughout the whole show. This makes social networking more challenging. While watching this show, the audiences not only need to keep tracks on changes of social networking, but also need to make sense of what effects these changes later. Hence, Friends demands more cognitive work from the audiences and challenges their minds.
After watching I Love Lucy and Friends, I have found that Friends is more complicated and challenging in threading and social networking. As Johnson claims, there is a trend of the popular TV being more complicated and challenging. It is making the audiences smarter.