Glee: Best TV show ever? A neuroscientific perspective

About ten years ago, while pursuing a story on the roots of depression, I tracked down the great scientist Jaak Panksepp, originator of the field of affective — that is, emotional — neuroscience, and he kindly let me interview him over the phone for half an hour. 

Panksepp has spent years studying the physiology of emotion in the brain, from autism to sleep, but his central breakthrough, in the early 1970's, was his focus on physiological similarity in the brain between opiates and brain-created (endogenous) chemicals linked to friendship and love.

In an interview, he explained

Our guiding central idea was that there was a remarkable family resemblance between social bonding and narcotic addiction–from the initial attachment-dependence phase to the eventual tolerance-withdrawal phases. 

I was interested in the connection between music, its apparent power to confront depression; and, possibly, to induce it. And, if possible, to further look at the curious fact that so many great musicians (Billie Holliday, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Charlie Parker, to name a few) were opiate addicts. 

Does listening to sad songs help us overcome depression, or help us wallow in it?

And what about a band like Nirvana, who uses the raw, roaring power of punk rock to drive depression back, with the likes of Stay Away

In his long and dazzling career, Panksepp has weighed in on my topics, but a sad twist in his own life led him to an interest in music, specifically, in music that has the power to bring on chills

Panksepp lost his beloved daughter, a teenager, who was killed in a crash with a drunk driver. He struggled to cope with her death, but discovered over time that certain songs would bring her back to his mind. Specifically, Whitney Houston's version of I Will Always Love You

[Panksepp] argues that chills may emerge from brain dynamics associated with the perception of social loss, specifically with separation calls. Separation calls are cries by young animals that inform parents of the whereabouts of offspring that have become lost. The “coldness” of chills may provide increased motivation for social reunion in the parents. So certain kinds of sad and bittersweet music may achieve its beauty and its chilling effect through a symbolic rendition of the separation call.

In our discussion, Panksepp forcefully argued that the power of this kind of music, the way we know it is working on us at an endogenous opiate level, are those chills. That "Dionysian response," he said, is the sign of art at its most powerful. Art that makes us want to go crazy. 

Watching Glee a week ago, I felt chills during this:

The fact that the joyful, unashamed, deliciously gay Darren Criss sings the song (It's Not Unusual) Tom Jones made famous only adds to the universality of the scene, and helps drive the crowd wild. 

Never before in my life has a taped television show sent chills up my spine, and I've been watching TV in America for fifty years, give or take.

That's why, personally, I think Glee may well be the best television show ever.

But wait, there's more! Variety critic David Benedict argues cogently that musicals have been disrespected by critics and the Academy because they focus on dramatizations of happiness.

Specifically, the happiness of love, which is what they do best — better than any other medium. 

Complaining that musicals are not “realistic” (as if, for example, action pictures are) completely misses the point, although it is one that, of all people, tractor-driving farmer Judy Garland asks in Summer Stock. Bewildered by performers who are going to “put the show on right here” in her barn, she asks Gene Kelly to explain. In the wings of the makeshift stage he says, “If the boy tells the girl that he loves her, he doesn’t just say it: he sings it.” To which, reasonably enough, she responds, “Why doesn’t he just say it?” The number that follows makes his and the wider point. It is not that musicals cannot work through narrative, it is that they choose a richer, more expressively full-blooded route consciously abandoning realism for idealistic fantasy.

Add to this, the fact that the 21st century may well prove to be the century where we expect media experiences to be repeatable, and musicals — which can be played again and again, like songs, without dimunition, indeed, with augmentation — and it's no surprise that Glee, surely the most replayable show on TV, is a sensation

I wonder if they'll ever take on Smells Like Teen Spirit

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