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7 TV Shows That Are Basically Textbooks


We’ve all felt guilty about watching TV instead of studying. “I’ll open my textbook after this episode,” you promise yourself, and four episodes later you’ve forgotten you even had an exam coming up. We’re here to ease your guilt by pointing out some TV shows that are basically textbooks. In these cases, binge watching them is the same thing as studying… right?

1. Breaking Bad– Chemistry 101

Breaking Bad’s protagonist, Walter White, starts out as a high school chemistry teacher, so you already have an instructor for this course. When he’s diagnosed with lung cancer, Walter starts to make and sell methamphetamine with one of his students. This drama offers its viewers many lessons about both life and chemistry. “It’s all about forming bonds,” says Chelsea, a junior at the University of Rochester, “whether they be friends, families, ionic, covalent…”

Along the way, you get an appreciation for the role science plays in society. “It shows that chemistry has real-world applications,” says Chelsea. “Meth.”

Of course, we don’t condone Walter’s illicit behavior, but we do encourage you to listen for the facts about chemistry that are sprinkled throughout the show. “I’ve only seen the first season of Breaking Bad, but I’ve learned that hydrochloric acid must be put in plastic, not any other material, or it will melt your floor,” says Patricia, a junior at the University of Rochester.

Review Question: What does “Br Ba” stand for?

Answer: Breaking Bad! (No, not “Bromine Barium.” That would be too elementary.)

2. Arrested Development– Intro to Business Economics

One of the basic assumptions of economics is people are driven by incentives. If they have something to gain by doing something, they’ll do it, and if they do something, it’s because they gain something from it. Arrested Development is the textbook example of this: most of the main characters are terrible people who are driven by selfish motivations.

The show follows the family behind the Bluth Company, a real estate development firm that loses everything when the CEO, George Bluth, is arrested for fraud. The family must figure out how to maintain their lucrative lifestyle by upholding the family company while George is in prison. This series is basically a lesson in how to run a business.

Here are some business tips we’ve learned from the show:

  1. Don’t burn down your banana stand if that’s where your money is.
  2. Don’t let your irresponsible brother take over the company.
  3. Don’t build a company based on software you haven’t created.

Okay, so maybe this show is just a lesson in what not to do. As Elyssa, a chapter advisor for Her Campus, says, “A major business lesson from Arrested Development is to make a good product and work hard to make the millions! No one wants to have to live in the attic like George Sr. hiding from the government for making shady business deals!”

Review Question: If you fail this class, what will your friends call you?

Answer: Mr. F.

3. How I Met Your Mother– Probability and Statistics

What are the chances that you’ll meet the perfect spouse?  We’d like to think they’re pretty high, but How I Met Your Mother shows us it’s not that simple.  Ted Mosby, the protagonist, narrates to his children (and the audience) episode after episode of falling for the wrong women before he finally meets his wife.

The theory of chance involves looking at all the situations where an event is possible and figuring out how many times that event occurs.  As Ted looks over the events of his life, he realizes that the things that didn’t go his way—not getting a job, not getting a girl—ended up leading him to new experiences and helped him grow.  All these events ultimately improved the chances of him achieving the turning point in his life: meeting his wife. This show won’t explicitly teach you Bayes’ Rule or statistical determinism, but it’ll tell you that even when your life seems random, if you collect data and organize your memories, you might find a pattern that shows future happiness is inevitable.

Review Question: Ted gets involved with about 34 women over the course of the show, but only marries one. What is the probability of him dating the woman he will marry?

Answer: Almost three percent. No wonder it took him 10 seasons to find her.

4. Game of Thrones– Intro to Political Science

Are you interested in government? Do you aspire to rule as a queen in a fantasy world? If so, watching this show is pretty much imperative to your career planning. Game of Thrones follows several “houses” that struggle for power in the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos.

Before you can start ruling your nation, you should have an idea of the different ways you can rise to power. The houses in Game of Thrones have several approaches. Megan, a political science major at Southern Miss and avid Game of Thrones fan, gives the textbook translations of their methods.

  • The Lannisters: They’re the perfect political role models if you’re okay with being a little ethically questionable. “The Lannisters are pretty much Machiavellian princes; they finagle and deceive to get what they want.”   
  • The Targaryens: If your family is already in power, you probably agree that people should be born into power. “The Targaryens remind me of some Confucian political theory.  Confucius was a big supporter of an aristocracy. It is not for the people to try to govern the aristocracy; rather, they should try to imitate it. Dany [Targaryen] is committed to her people, but insists upon gaining the throne she feels she deserves. As Jorah would say, she's a born queen.”
  • The Starks: Maybe you want to try an approach that’s a little more recent than ancient China. “The Starks are the most post-enlightenment. They feel that with their power comes a responsibility to the realm and its people. Even little Bran knows to send out bannermen to aid the people, even when it leaves his hold unprotected. His main concern is to protect the people around him, even at his own expense.”

As an added bonus, Game of Thrones is also cross-listed as a sexuality studies course.

Review Question: Who is Jon Snow’s mother?

Answer: Let us know if you figure it out!

5. Firefly– Philosophy of Ethics

This cult sci-fi show, which is often described as a space Western, has tons of action and adventure. Even though it takes place in a future filled with intergalactic travel and advanced technology, the plot raises the same philosophical questions about justice and crime that have been challenging thinkers for centuries. 

You couldn’t ask for a better ethics professor than Mal Reynolds, the captain of the spaceship Serenity. His main motivation is to be free from the Alliance, the corrupt governing force of this futuristic society. He goes to extremes to maintain this independence, even committing robberies to support himself financially (this is where the “Western” part of the genre comes in). Mal seems to believe in consequentialism: the consequences of an action determine whether or the action is moral (you can think of it as “the end justifies the means”). He also adheres to a strict personal moral code—even if he doesn’t like his crewmembers, he will go to any means to protect them. It’s hard to imagine a presentation of applied ethics that’s more gripping and heartrending than Firefly.

Review Question: What is an example of unethical conduct?

Answer: Canceling this show after one season.

6. Orange Is the New Black– Intro to Women’s Studies

If you’re interested in television and the Internet, you’ve probably heard about this show due to its unusual release to the public. Unlike most television shows, which air episodes a week at a time, the Netflix released the entire first season of Orange Is the New Black at once, giving viewers the chance to decide how quickly they want to go through episodes. The show is unique in another way, though. Its production team and cast are primarily women, a feat particularly impressive in a world that still struggles with gender equality.

The show presents the daily lives and backstories of the people living in a women’s prison. “Orange Is the New Black is basically Intro to Women’s Studies,” says Annie, a junior at Sewanee. “It features women from every socioeconomic class, racial background and sexual orientation facing problems that have nothing to do with getting a perfect beach bod or finding Prince Charming.” The characters range from Sophia, a black transgender woman, to Tiffany, a pro-life religious conservative, to Piper, a middle-class white woman. The show shows the way issues like racism, homophobia and sexism affect their lives.

This sounds like a heavy show, and it certainly has its tense moments. But it’s also funny. Like, have-to-go-back-and-catch-the-lines-you-missed-because-you-were-laughing-so-hard-the-first-time funny.  Orange Is the New Black shows the hardships and the humor that are familiar to all people, not just women. Like women’s studies, it ultimately affirms the experience of being human.

Review Question: Do groups oppressed by gender, sexuality and race have a place in academia?

Answer: Duh. And now Orange Is the New Black is giving these same groups a place in mainstream entertainment.

7. Wishbone– Survey of World Literature

We know what you’re thinking, and no, you’re definitely not too old to enjoy this classic PBS kids show from the ‘90s, especially when watching it basically covers your English Lit requirement. This show is about a kid named Joe Talbot and his Jack Russell terrier, Wishbone. Stories about Joe and his friends are interlaced with tales from classic literature told through the eyes of his dog. 

This show covers a wide range of literature—in fact, it’s probably covered more time periods and countries than your typical English class. Where else could you study ancient Greece, American literature and African fables? This show also does classics from world literature that aren’t as commonly read in class, such as Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and “The Story of the Deathless Voice,” a Navajo story. 

In addition to introducing you to the general plot and characters, Wishbone highlights the main themes by comparing them to contemporary life. This show is basically SparkNotes, only better, because you don’t have to read anything.

Review Question: What common thematic element is present in both The Odyssey and The Tempest?

Answer: Canine lead characters. Oh, wait…

Instead of wasting time in line at the bookstore, you can watch these shows in the comfort of your dorm. Game of Thrones airs on HBO, many Wishbone episodes are on YouTube and the rest of these shows are on Netflix. (Saving money on textbooks: yet another benefit of Netflix!) Get your friends together and have a good, old-fashioned study session!

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