Panel 3B | TV Representations of Science and Research

Of Cultures and Classes: Representing STEM Education, Science, and Academia in Showtime’s Shameless (2011-2021)
Martin Butler (Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg)

Both structured by and reproducing socio-economic stratification, STEM education in the US, more often than not, still excludes those youth whose family backgrounds do not provide them with adequate educational and economic resources to pass the entry level requirements of college or university careers (cf., e.g., Rozek et al.). Despite attempts at increasing options of including the socio-economically disadvantaged in what is referred to as the “STEM pipeline” (ibid.), the gatekeeping mechanisms defining the field of science and its central institution, i.e., the academy, persist and contribute to maintaining a class-based structure of access and achievement. My paper explores the ways of critically negotiating these exclusionary structures and processes of STEM education in the US television series Shameless, which, in eleven seasons spanning from 2011 to 2021, tells the story of the working-class Gallagher family living in the Southside of Chicago. With one of the family’s members, Philipp ‘Lip’ Gallagher, being a straight-A student torn between aspirations towards a university career and his alcohol addiction, the series indeed addresses the class-related modes of distinction and exclusion of STEM education, while both picking up and subverting clichéd variations of academia and the professor as its major protagonist–both in the sciences and the humanities. Thus entangling different classes and different academic cultures, the series foregrounds the significance of socio-economic status (and a respective habitus in a Bourdieuan sense) in the field of science and its institution, thus shedding light on one central dimension of marginalization in US society and culture.

Into a Defamiliarized Zone: Weird Science in Tales from the Loop
Paul Mitchell (Universidad Católica de Valencia San Vicente Mártir)

In this paper, I discuss season one of the recent SF television series, Tales from the Loop (Nathaniel Halpern, 2020), streamed by Amazon Prime. Taking place in a fictional town in Ohio, which is home to the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics (MCEP), the series’ eight episodes explore the lives of those who are transformed by the work that is done there. A mysterious, underground research institute, MCEP–or, as it is more commonly known, the Loop–makes “the impossible possible.” But, through its experiments with theoretical physics, relativity, and quantum/biomechanics, many of the local residents or employees undergo life-changing, sometimes harrowing, experiences of time travel, parallel dimensions, body swapping and cybernetic technologies. Combining episodic and serialised narration, Tales from the Loop is less interested in explaining the science on which it is based than on interrogating the affective impact that experimental research can have on the quality of people’s lives and on our understanding of reality. Described by Variety as “unlike any science fiction TV series ever conceived,” Halpern’s genre-bending anthology is a fresh and philosophical exploration of human desire, vulnerability, and mortality. In discussing several of the show’s episodes, I explore Tales from the Loop in relation to Roger Luckhurst’s notion of Weird Zones. More specifically, I comment on how, by considering the uncanny, de-familiarized nature of Mercer, we can better understand how the show uses science fiction to investigate the existential outcomes of advanced theoretical research.

The Evolution of Bioethical Issues on TV: A Narrative Comparison of House MD and The Good Doctor
Deepak Rathore (Indian Institute of Technology) and Sakshi Srivastava (Banaras Hindu University)

Over the last decades, American TV and cinema have revolutionized the popular representation of STEM research and its reception among the lay audience. From narratives of mishandled experimentations, to uncontainable epidemics, from technology gone awry to exceptional minds against the world, it abounds in productions that attempt to showcase the possibilities of a more versatile and scientifically contingent future along with the current progress in STEM. American TV drama series such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Resident, New Amsterdam etc. have been distinctly involved in popularizing medicine and the lives of medical professionals across the world. Among others, the (nearly) accurate depiction of medical practice, procedures and ethical issues of the successful shows House MD (2004-2012) and The Good Doctor (2017-ongoing) have gained critical acclaim in last few years. Both the shows have had a huge impact on public imagination due to their detective genre narrative, well rounded characters and the charisma of bio-scientific breakthroughs. Alongside these, they have also presented the audience with a variety of bio-ethical dilemmas situating their titular characters in situations where personal life clashes with the professional demands, individual genius clashes with the greater good, business oriented curing clashes with wholesome healing and an array of questions about ethically approved care arises frequently. They also contextualize contemporary political issues, but this paper focuses on certain key bioethical issues in these two shows, related to assisted dying, genetic selection, consent, research ethics, artificial intelligence etc. The aim is to trace the evolution of the representation of bioethics through the years by using two model texts. By taking up an interdisciplinary position to problematize bio-scientific medicine with bioethics and narratives, this paper also attempts to explore the debates around these issues and their handling in the shows.

Revisiting MythBusters: What Television–and Television Studies–Have to Teach About How Science Works
Ben Riggs (Northwestern University)

In the early 21st Century, science on television has perhaps been most exemplified by the procedural reality series MythBusters. Produced by Australia’s Beyond Television Productions and distributed globally by the Discovery Channel, MythBusters has been routinely celebrated for its engaging presentation of scientific protocol, where the testing of an individual “myth” within an episode is said to positively demonstrate scientific methods. When President Barack Obama appeared on the series finale, for example, he thanked MythBusters “for inspiring so many young people to ask the big questions about our world, and to seek the answers through math, science, and engineering.” While also acknowledging and evaluating criticisms of MythBusters (e.g., its reductive reputation for simply “blowing things up”), I argue that the series, which produced over 250 episodes during its original run (2003-2016), actually presented a fuller, more nuanced vision of science than at first glance. This is due to MythBusters’ embrace of the complex narrative seriality which typifies much of the contemporary fiction TV landscape (as described in, for example, Jason Mittell’s Complex TV [2015]). In the MythBusters lexicon, a “revisit” is when series hosts reengineer and reevaluate previously-tested myths with new techniques or testing conditions. Drawing from recent work in the humanities-based field of television studies, this presentation makes the case that the revisit resists the linearity and boundedness of a single scientific test by both calling back to previous episodes and by suggesting that future tests could yield alternative results. In other words, a regular viewer of MythBusters, who understands its protocols as a television series, would see that science is ongoing, subject to replication and revision, and self-correcting. These overarching characteristics of the scientific enterprise (the collective “nature of science”) have historically proven difficult to convey to non-scientists. Yet television, which routinely delivers ongoing stories that develop over time, and regularly inspires impassioned fanbases which follow these stories, hasn’t been fully appreciated by science professionals for its potential to represent complex science as it happens. Science, then, might yet have something to learn about itself by watching TV.