25 Super Smart TV Shows You Can Actually Learn From

By Amber Hensley

TV has long been vilified as a brain-numbing device, but recent research, such as the research documented by Steven Johnson in his book, Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter indicates that some specific types of TV shows can actually make you smarter. Shows that offer such traits as overlapping plot strands, a relatively large number of major characters, blurred lines between good and evil, and narrative that is left to the viewer to understand rather than being told exactly what is happening. In addition to these types of shows, there are also shows that are great vehicles for imparting intelligent information. The following 25 TV shows provide viewers an opportunity to learn and expand their intelligence by watching them. Fiction Currently on TV These shows provide many of the characteristics described by Steven Johnson and will certainly sharpen your brain while helping you learn about many aspects of human nature.

  1. 24. Not only is 24 the second longest-running espionage drama on TV and follows the work of Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, who works for the American government fighting terrorist threats. 24 is aired in real-time. Each minute of the show corresponds to a real-life minute that is even continued through commercial breaks. The show is known for its complex plots, fast pace, and difficult moral dilemmas.
  2. 30 Rock. This comedy is the brain-child of Tina Fey and documents the goings-on of a fictional live sketch comedy show in New York. Based on Fey’s work at Saturday Night Live, the show includes a cast of ten major characters. While critically acclaimed and enjoying a growing viewership, the show has not garnered the widespread popularity many feel it deserves.
  3. Heroes. A story of 12 ordinary people who mysteriously develop extraordinary abilities, the heroes in this show devote their powers to thwarting world destruction at the hands of the villains. Heroes is modeled after the style of superhero comics in format with short episodes leading to a bigger, overarching story line. The complex plot lines of this show, while lending to the intelligent nature of Heroes, has come under controversy and may be simplified in future episodes.
  4. House. House explores medical diagnostic challenges of patients that find their way to the teaching hospital where Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie, and his crew of top-notch diagnostic team. While the show offers a formulaic and predictable format, the medical detective work and depth of character development have promoted this smart TV show to being the most watched show around the world in 2008.
  5. Lost. Inspired by the movie Cast Away and the novel Lord of the Flies, Lost follows the lives of plane crash survivors stranded on an island in the South Pacific. The large cast and the intricate storylines, including flashbacks to the characters’ past lives, lend this show an air of intellectual stimulation as well as entertaining TV viewing.

Non-Fiction Currently on TV Catch these smart shows and learn about food, science, nature, and more.

  1. Good Eats. Host of the show, Alton Brown, walks viewers through preparing recipes, many his own creations, while making jokes, he is actually providing plenty of awesome information on food, cooking, tools of the trade, the science behind cooking, and more. Get a good dose of humor along with super recipes that you will want to try yourself.
  2. How It’s Made. How It’s Made takes ordinary items and shows how they are manufactured during half-hour shows. Some of the items profiled have included lollipops, contact lenses, bicycle helmets, boomerangs, and airline meals. The show originally aired in Canada and France and has spread worldwide. The only spoken words are done by a narrator, which can be adjusted to the language of the country airing the show. The fascinating way common items are made is strangely addictive as well as informative.
  3. Mythbusters. Everyone has heard urban legends or rumors and wondered if they are true. The guys at Mythbusters did more than just wonder. Each episode of this show has the team members challenge myths by recreating events and testing the situation to see if the myths may be true or false. Watching the teams build contraptions or set up scientific experiments is as much fun as seeing whether or not the myths hold up.
  4. NOVA. This science program on PBS has been on the air since 1974 and has won many awards through the years. The topics covered in this series have ranged from AIDS to acid rain and bioterrorism to Siamese twins. The quality of the shows as well as the support for each episode on the official website have contributed to much of the show’s popularity and recognition.
  5. Planet Earth. This acclaimed nature documentary series was the first filmed in high definition. The 11 episodes in this series each focus on a specific habitat and also spend a few minutes at the end of each episode showing how the documentary was made. Not only is the cinematography visually stunning and the information imparted truly interesting, but the show captured a series of first-time-on-camera events including male birds of paradise displaying their plumage and male Emperor Penguins wintering with their eggs.
  6. Time Warp. Time Warp takes the viewer into the world of ultra-slow motion by showing ordinary events slowed with high tech cameras. Hosted by MIT scientist and teacher Jeff Lieberman and digital-imaging expert Matt Kearney, these two take events such as a bubble popping, a skateboarder doing tricks, or a cat licking its paw and slows them down to show the science behind the action.

Catch it on DVD These shows may no longer be airing on TV, except maybe as reruns, but are still worthwhile sources of smart TV that can help you learn about social issues, human nature, science, community, and more. Check them out on DVD or download episodes online.

  1. Northern Exposure. What happens when a cynical physician from New York is sent to live and work in a small town in the state of Alaska? If it’s a popular TV show, then the physician serves as a catalyst for cultural understanding. The show featured quirky characters (female bush pilot, philosophical radio announcer, former astronaut) and unusual relationships (romance between 20-something Shelley and 60-something Holling) and explored themes of cultural diversity, family, and friendship.
  2. Alias. The activities of young CIA agent Sydney Bristow and her requirement to hide her profession from friends and family are at the heart of this show. During its five seasons, the show enjoyed an amazing number of famous guests and addressed important themes such as trust and relationship dynamics.
  3. All in the Family. All in the Family has been off the air for 30 years, but still stands as a TV legend. This show was the first to tackle tough social issues including racism, women’s lib, and rape, which up to this point, were not allowed on TV. The bigotry of the main character, Archie Bunker, serves to highlight the absurdity of prejudice and the trademark humor of the show softens sometimes difficult themes.
  4. Battlestar Galactica. This remake from an earlier series which originally aired in 1978 enjoyed many awards as well as widespread popularity. Themes of theology and issues affecting modern society such as terrorism, civil liberties, and torture have all played out on this show. Despite the science fiction element of this show, its characters, plot lines, and themes have made it a show appealing to many–even those who don’t typically enjoy science fiction.
  5. E.R.. This year brought an end to the longest running primetime medical drama on TV when E.R. completed its 15th season. The show was created by Harvard-educated physician and novelist Michael Crichton. Over the years, the large cast evolved yet always presented well-developed characters in plot lines frequently exploring important social issues. Not only does E.R. fit all of the qualifications outlined by Steven Johnson for what makes smart TV, but it also garnered 22 Emmy awards and 123 Emmy nominations.
  6. Frasier. A spin-off of the wildly popular show, Cheers, Frasier chronicles the life of psychiatrist Frasier Crane who returns home to Seattle where he shares an apartment with his father who has been injured on the job as a policeman. The show frequently delved into commentary on class issues and family dynamics. The show is also known for the intellectual wit that runs through each episode.
  7. Hill Street Blues. This police drama that ran from 1981 to 1987 was the first show that developed both short-term problems resolved in one episode and longer problems that spanned over several episodes. It also was the first to delve into both personal and work lives of the characters and the conflicts of the two and often examined ambiguous lines between right and wrong. The enormous cast of characters throughout the seven seasons, the complex plot lines, and the moral issues explored all provide insight as to why this show was as critically and popularly embraced and the reruns still enjoys air time in both the US and the UK.
  8. M*A*S*H. Premiering in 1972 while the Vietnam War was still going, M*A*S*H was a thinly-veiled allegory for that war that enjoyed a long run until its final episode in 1983. Set in the Korean War, the large cast of characters include both drafted medical professionals and career Army characters working in a mobile surgical unit in Korea. The show is often billed as a comedy, but the heavy themes such as war, racism, classism, death, relationships, and fear are hardly those of comedy. The infamous laugh track, as controversial at the time of the show as annoying to present-day audiences, is thankfully an option on the DVD version of this series.
  9. My So-Called Life. Widely considered a teen drama, this short-lived show featured the lives of several high school students and highlighted such social issues as school violence, child abuse, and drug use. The show didn’t try to candy-coat any of the themes it dealt with, but incorporated them into the story lines in a realistic manner usually devoid in TV. While the show was not intended only for a teen audience, it never found the popularity it should have despite critical acclaim. The show was cancelled after only one season.
  10. Six Feet Under. This show from HBO spanned five seasons and explored the lives of the Fishers, who own and run a funeral home, and their friends and family. Sex and death, two of the most difficult themes to address in America, were at the heart of this series with sub-texts of religion, philosophy, and morality. Each show began with the death of an individual who would become a client at the funeral home and the show would pick up the theme started with each death. The powerful writing and acting in the show along with the controversial themes thrust this show into the limelight and quickly became a critical and popular favorite.
  11. The Sopranos. Another HBO show, this one predating Six Feet Under, The Sopranos follows mob boss Tony Soprano through both family and professional ties. Like Six Feet Under, The Sopranos is recognized for its excellent writing and acting. Heavy themes were often the focus of this show, delving into philosophy, politics, social issues, and psychology–especially self-exploration. Not only has this show gathered many awards, it is often referred to as a pop-culture masterpiece.
  12. Sports Night. Only on the air for two seasons, Sports Night featured such notable actors as Robert Guillaume, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, and Peter Krause. The story revolved around a televised sports show and its employees with topics often focusing on morally ambiguous problems. The dialog of the show was smart and fast, and a precursor to the style made famous on The West Wing, which shared the same creator, Aaron Sorkin.
  13. The West Wing. Set in the west wing of the White House during a fictional Democratic presidential term, the show often examines many social issues on a more personal level in addition to wider, more politically-based problems. Praised for its realistic depiction of the goings-on in the White House and honest exploration of real issues, the show gained critical success and remained popular, although it was often criticized as being too far to the left, politically, and too idealistic.
  14. The Wire. This crime show aired on HBO from 2002 to 2008 and explored many facets of the city of Baltimore. Unlike other dramas, The Wire offered a depth in the plotting and writing not typically seen with intricate dialog that was crucial to understanding the storyline. This show explored themes of personal privacy, dysfunction in bureaucratic institutions, war, and the drug world. This raw, realistic drama never gained widespread public attention, but did win awards and critical acclaim, with many reviewers claiming it to be the best TV show while it was on the air.

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