A call for more TV shows about science and academia

Certain television genres are well-established. One academic suggests TV should branch out and include a show about science, knowledge, and academia:

No matter what new sitcoms and dramas the networks dream up this coming fall, I can almost guarantee the absence of one type of show: a show about academia. But a television show about academics — professors, scientist and graduate students — is more necessary than ever before. And with a film being made out of Piled Higher and Deeper — an online comic about the trials and tribulations of graduate students — the time may be right to fill this gaping hole on the small screen…

The interplay between the objective quest for knowledge and the all-too-human drama that surrounds it is something that the average viewer has probably heard of, but does not know much about.

And there’s no shortage of real drama to fuel story lines. This show, which I would call The Ivory Tower, would be packed with backstabbing and gossip, glimpses into the intellectual servitude of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the agony of dissertation defenses, the thrill of scientific discoveries, the ulcer-creating tenure process, professors’ quests for 15 minutes of fame, and, of course, the inevitable lab love affairs.

Episodes could revolve around topics ranging from the conflict-of-interest riddled nature of how scientific ideas are vetted by peers, to those rare but gut-wrenching cases of academic dishonesty and faking data, to the intense deliberations over thesis defenses. Academia is a very non-rational endeavor.

Here are a few things such a show would have to deal with:

1. There seems to be a good number of Americans who think academics are elitist or liberal or Godless (or perhaps all three). Viewers need to be able to relate to the characters or the settings. This is an image problem.

2. As the writer suggests, the show would have to revolve around relationships in the same way that every other show does. Yes, it would have to include all of TV’s tropes including unrequited love between co-workers and bad/incompetent bosses.

3. I have a sneaking suspicion that this whole proposal is a joke. Who wants to watch “the agony of dissertation defenses” or the “ulcer-creating tenure process”?

4. Perhaps such a show could be based around an innovative science or research project. Therefore, the overall payoff of the show wouldn’t just be the episode-to-episode relationships but rather a large story arc about curing cancer or developing space travel vehicles for humans that would go beyond the moon.

4a. Why couldn’t the project-driven show work as a reality show on Discovery or National Geographic?

5. I suspect many academics get into academia because they are excited about “the objective quest for knowledge.” But how many professors have given such a speech to students about the joys of research, hard work, and discovery only to be met with blank stares? Some students enjoy this – but would the general public?

6. Which discipline would get to be featured in such a show? I wonder how TV creators and producers would make this choice. I imagine they would have to go with something relatively well-known and/or controversial.

7. There are plenty of shows and movies about high school. There still aren’t that many about college, let alone the academic side of college. Is this because high school is a more universal experience or is it more uniform across schools?

0 thoughts on “A call for more TV shows about science and academia

    • And they always seem to have such interesting adventures. But where is the pre-tenure stress? Where are the needy graduate students? When do they grade papers?


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