The scientist in TV dramas

This is a widely-acknowledged Golden Age of American television drama (led, of course, by cable shows, but with network fare that also has its high points). (I’m two discs in to Deadwood right now, which is the one show that is usually mentioned in the same sentence as The Wire in terms of really great shows.) One remarkable thing that’s happened recently, especially this season, is the flood of scientists as main characters. Several established shows have main characters who derive much of their identity, and personality, from being scientists: House, Bones, and (to some extent) Mohinder Suresh from Heroes. More than earlier shows in the same genres (medical dramas, forensic science dramas, superhero dramas), these shows and their characters explore the meanings of what it is to be a scientist in modern society.

But two new shows this season, Fringe and Eleventh Hour, are about science to an unprecedented extent (even including The X-Files and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but excluding CBC’s ReGenesis and the four-episode British version of Eleventh Hour, neither of which I’ve yet seen).

Fringe, and its main scientist character, showcase science-as-threat; Walter Bishop is Dr. Frankenstein for the era of Big Science. In his previous scientific life, Bishop had worked for the government and others on an endless array of “fringe science” research projects, mostly aimed in various ways at controlling the minds and bodies of people living and dead. Institutionalized for years, Bishop is now out and, working out of his old lab at Harvard, is helping the FBI investigate “The Pattern”, a big-business-linked series of weird and deadly happenings that are often the scientific monsters Bishop had helped to create. In Fringe, science is not just a threat to society, it is (inherently?) a threat to the moral fiber and mental health of the scientist. Bishop is an otherwise kindly old man whose broken personality is centered on a self-centeredness that is presented as, at least partly, a mental health issue, and alternately child-like naivety and (in the course of performing science) shocking callousness. Fringe is by no means a serious show, but it does articulate an interesting, and I think significant, interpretation of what it means in American culture to be a scientist.

If Fringe is in part inspired by the works of Michael Crichton, as creator J. J. Abrams claims, then Eleventh Hour is inspired by the other part of Michael Crichton’s works–that is, the part that deals with the moral and ethical dimensions of science as it is actually practiced, rather than the outlandish threats of science gone wild. The compelling main character, biophysicist Jacob Hood, also works for the FBI investigating science-related crimes and mysteries. But where Walter Bishop is pulled, out of dire necessity, from an asylum, Hood was recruited because (in addition to his brilliance) he was friends with someone who ended up in a position of power in the FBI. Most of the crimes involve acute threats to one or a few people, but there is no overarching conspiracy, no Pattern of misused science. Rather, the criminals are usually scientists doing realistic but scientifically/ethically/morally questionable research (often in commercial contexts), or the people who oppose what they do. Hood treads the line of genuine scientific enthusiasm (often accompanied by patronizing bemusement at his female FBI handler’s scientific ignorance), and ironic detachment and quiet disapproval of less-than-pure but not egregiously bad ways of doing science.

What does recent prominence of science and scientists tell us about American culture and the place of science in society? I don’t know, but I feel that it’s my scholarly responsibility to keep watching until I figure it out.

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