“Television will rot your brain.”
So parents have been telling their kids since, oh, the 1950s—back when the worst you’d likely see on TV was Elvis gyrating on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Now, some might scoff at the idea that TV can, uniformly, cause your brain to rot. And as a guy who reviews a lot of TV, the truth feels more complex. In fact, some TV shows can be intelligent, challenging and even inspiring.
But TV can be pretty rotten, as well. And sometimes intelligent TV and rotten TV can walk hand in hand.
Want proof? Look at the Emmy nominations.
Emmy noms were released last Thursday. HBO’s Succession was television’s most nominated show, garnering a whopping 25 nods, including one for Best Drama Series. Apple TV+’s comedy Ted Lasso and HBO’s limited series The White Lotus tied for second with 20 nominations apiece.
Now, looking at the shows that garnered nods, many of them are pretty “good,” by the world’s standards. And even Plugged In has said some nice things about many of them. Ted Lasso, for instance, might be one of television’s kindest shows. Too bad it pairs its good heart with such a foul mouth. Throw this in the theater, and it’d garner an R-rating for language, easy. And it comes with what most folks consider to be the equivalent TV brand of TV-MA—for mature audiences only.
But here’s the thing: Lasso’s actually one of Emmy’s cleaner offerings.
Almost all of the nominated series this year are rated TV-MA. And some of these MA shows—again, if tossed in theaters—might scamper right past an R rating and head straight into a scandalous NC-17. HBO’s Euphoria, which gathered in 16 Emmy nods, revels in nudity; one episode featured a scene in a high school locker room that included full-frontal views of 37 supposedly underage guys. (And that scene, according to screenrant.com, was just the ninth-most controversial scene in the show’s first season.) The Daily Mail asked if Squid Game (a Netflix show that banked 14 nominations) was “the most twisted series on TV”. Our own review of Pam & Tommy (10 nominations, on Hulu) by Kennedy Unthank found that “for a good chunk of time, the show seems to have more pornography than plot.”
Ask Emmy, and the statuette might tell you that extreme content and quality are inextricably linked. Of the eight shows nominated for Best Drama Series, seven are TV-MA. The lone outlier is Stranger Things, and the Parents Television and Media Council is petitioning Netflix to change it to TV-MA as well—noting that profanity in the show has jumped 217% from Season One to Season Four.
“Our research found that explicit language including the ‘f-word’ and ‘s-word’ air uncensored numerous times in Stranger Things—a line that was historically rarely crossed in programs rated for 13- and 14-year-olds,” said PTC President Tim Winter. That, and the show’s ubiquitous violence, is plenty of reason to up the rating, the organization insists.
Meanwhile, prestige comedies—often a category where you could find a few shows with more family friendly content—are just as problematic. Of the eight shows nominated for Best Comedy Series, only one isn’t TV-MA—ABC’s Abbott Elementary. And in the realm of Best Limited Series, TV-MA shows made, ironically, a clean sweep.
Back when parents first warned their kids about the rotting impact of television, most homes just had one TV set in the most public of spaces: The family living room. Now—what with televisions, computers, tablets and phones—the average household is now home to 7.3 screens. Most of them are viewed well away from a parent’s prying eyes. It’s easier than ever for kids to see something that, while it might not physically rot their brains, could introduce them to unhealthy, and corrosive, elements.
The Emmys are all about praising the best shows that television has to offer. But by some measures the “best” of television has never been worse. For parents, that dichotomy presents a serious challenge, especially in a world where screens are so ubiquitous. But it’s critical, I believe, for parents to face that challenge—being mindful of all those screens, and how those screens can impact their children. It’s not easy, but we’re here to help.