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When TV and professors’ research interests align

We asked a handful of faculty members whether they watch popular TV shows whose storylines line up with their areas of research—and how that affects the way they view these shows.

Game of Thrones: ‘I just really bought into Martin’s world…’

Game of Thrones

Photo credit: HBO

You can bet Kathleen Kelly knows the season 7 premiere of Game of Thrones is Sunday night. She’s read George R. R. Martin’s novels, and is a big fan of the mega-popular HBO show. As it happens, Game of Thrones aligns with her research focus: Kelly, professor of English, studies medieval literature and medievalism.

When Kelly first began watching the show, she binge-watched five or six episodes a night. Now that she’s caught up, she’s still debating whether she’ll watch week-to-week or let episodes pile up to binge later. Her favorite part is the visuals. She pays particular attention to the costumes. In her view, Cersei Lannister and Margaery Tyrell Mummer’s characters often wear more revealing clothing than what was likely worn in Western Europe in the Middle Ages.

These details, though, hardly distract from her viewing pleasure. She does, however, point to a common complaint among medieval historians: TV shows incorrectly depict the armor from this era.

“I just really bought into Martin’s world in the novels because I identified parallels with so many characters,” Kelly says, noting that the Kahl Drogo character draws parallels to Mongol leader Genghis Khan. Yet she quickly adds, “But that’s a great danger—thinking, ‘Who are these characters based on?’ That’s the wrong question. It suggests Game of Thrones needs some historical legitimizing, and some people are disappointed when it falls short.” For her part, Kelly is on board with Martin’s vision. As she puts it, “He’s manipulating ideas that I find very entertaining.”

We asked a handful of faculty members, including Kelly, whether they watch popular TV shows on cable and streaming services that align with their areas of research—and whether they view these shows through that lens. Like Kelly, other professors we interviewed noted that while they may pay special attention to the authenticity of certain plot points, they tune in for the entertainment value—not to be sticklers for accuracy.

Westworld: ‘It captured my attention immediately’


Photo credit: HBO

Though Taskin Padir doesn’t own a television, he watches some shows on his iPad through Amazon and Netflix. When a student and a colleague told him about Westworld, HBO’s sci-fi Western thriller that takes place at an amusement park filled with robot hosts that cater to high-paying guests, his interest piqued. “I thought maybe I should take a peek,” he says, “It captured my attention immediately.”

Padir, associate professor in the College of Engineering, is a robotics expert; in fact, his lab is working on Valkyrie, a humanoid robot that NASA would likely include in a Mars mission by 2030. While his area of scholarship might have drawn him to Westworld, he “didn’t think too hard about whether this is really possible.” Rather, he simply embraced the storyline and found the show to be “excellent science fiction.” He’s looking forward to season two.

“Hollywood is usually 50 to 100 years ahead of the current research and science,” Padir says, adding that he’s contemplated, with great delight, whether in his lifetime we’ll see self-aware robots.

The Americans: ‘Spies are always popular’

The Americans

Graphic credit: FXNOW

Harlow Robinson, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, is a self-described “Cold War baby.” Born in 1950, he grew up fascinated with learning more about the Soviet Union and has spent time there for his research, including on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1979-80 while earning his doctorate in Slavic languages and literatures from the University of California-Berkeley.

He’s seen every episode of The Americans, the FX series set in the early ’80s about two Soviet intelligence agents living in the U.S. and spying on the government. He’s riveted both as a scholar of Russian and Soviet cultural history and by the series’ compelling storytelling and character development. He credits the showrunners for their diligent research about that period of U.S.-Soviet relations and says the show works on multiple levels. For one, “spies are always popular,” he says. But it also features a strong central relationship between the husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) and wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell).

“There are a lot of ways in which the show is extremely effective,” Robinson says of The Americans. If he has one minor quibble, it’s that he’s surprised the couple hasn’t been exposed given the level of violence they’ve unleashed to maintain their cover.

Silicon Valley: A ‘farce,’ but ‘I’ve gotten a big kick out of it’

Silicon Valley

Illustration credit: HBO

At the opposite end of the spectrum from The Americans is Silicon Valley, the zany HBO comedy about six young men who founded a startup based on their innovative technology. The plot is right up Tucker Marion’s alley. “I’ve gotten a big kick of out of it,” says Marion, professor of technological entrepreneurship in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. “It’s a farce, and it’s overdone. But there is some truth to how they play this satire.”

One, he says, is how the company, Pied Piper, seems to keep stumbling into crisis after crisis—which measures up with the growing pains many startups face. Another is how sometimes a startup’s success might hinge on “right place, right time” to make the necessary connections and secure venture capital funding. “That’s part of the puzzle, and the show touches on that.” On the flip side, he chuckles at the portrayal of over-the-top characters like the “eccentric egomaniacal” Gavin Belson, founder of Houli, Pied Piper’s rival.

Marion says he enjoys Silicon Valley, but AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire actually does a better job of showing the technical, interpersonal issues involved in creating hardware and software.

From Dragnet, to NYPD Blue, to The Wire

The Wire

Photo credit: NBC

Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law, is also a big fan of Silicon Valley. He says the startup culture intrigues him, adding that it’s made him think more about the difficulty the law faces in keeping up with the pace of technology and innovation.

Paul is an “addict for good TV,” and has even been known to work TV references into his exam questions. In his judgment, HBO’s The Wire is the best show in television history. He says television is often reflective of cultural change, particularly noting memorable shows involving criminal justice and the law. In the series Dragnet, he says, investigators “were obsessed with criminal procedure protocols,” noting that it was popular around the time of the Supreme Court’s ruling to establish Miranda rights. Later, he says, shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue portrayed officers who were rougher with the accused.

Law & Order is another one of his favorite shows, though he says it often turns the lawyers’ closing statements into political speeches, which isn’t quite how it goes down in an actual courtroom. “You can learn a tremendous amount about where the law is and where it’s going by watching TV,” Paul says.