They say people with a photographic memory are a real rarity. Must be true because I’ve never met one in real life. Of course, there are also killjoys like these folks at Psychology Today who insist there is no such thing as a true photographic memory. Then there is Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory” who insists that you refer to this freak of nature by its scientific term eidetic memory. Whether photographic memories exist in real life or not and regardless of the debate over the extent to which memory can be imprinted in a photographic way, one thing is for sure. The concept of the photographic memory is never going to disappear from the TV landscape. It’s just too rich with possibilities to go away completely.
Maybe the only TV character who actually utilizes his photographic memory to its full extent for the purpose of driving the narrative of the show he is in is Shawn Spencer on “Psych.” The premise of the show depends on the existence of a photographic memory. Spencer pretends to be a psychic who can solved crimes by appealing to otherworldly forces when in fact he is actually recalling bits of information he photographed with his mind. Without audience belief in the existence of photographic memories, “Psych” would be rather pointless since Spencer would be engaging in one phony sideshow scam while pretending to be engaging in another.
The title of the show really applies to the episode “Memory.” Defying all scientific sense, the gang in charge pulling off impossible missions must rely on the hope that consumption of massive quantities of alcohol in the intervening years has not dulled the sharp senses of a man who once made his living by performing amazing feats of memory. Here’s a guy who drank himself out of a career who exhibits all other symptoms of alcoholism except for leaving his photographic memory in tact. The poor sap’s photographic memory will be utilized for allowing him to pose as a secret agent whose identity was never discovered by the Russians, but who recently died. The episode does make you wonder just how many people in real life who supposedly possess photographic memories have ever been recruited by spy agencies.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the fact that Fox Mulder has a photographic memory is the extent to which it never seems to become a tool he uses to solve the cases found among those X-Files. One would think that if an FBI agent were going to have a photographic memory among his arsenal of crime-solving tools, that such a tool would be retrieved more often.
Holmes and Yoyo
It was Yoyo that had the photographic memory in this buddy cop comedy, despite the other character sharing the name of a particularly observant consulting detective. Oh, and another thing: Yoyo was a robot that could not be distinguished from other human beings in appearance. Why anyone would want to spend time making a lifelike robot that looked exactly like actor John Schuck is anyone’s guess. Among the many technological advancements built into Yoyo were a trash compactor, printer and, yep, a photographic memory. Have to wonder if the printer was connected to the photographic memory.
Rocky and Bullwinkle
One episode of this satirical cartoon shoots a precisely placed barb right into the heart of the concept of photographic memories. In this particular case perhaps the term photographic memory should be replaced, if not by eidetic then by something else. Bullwinkle demonstrates the unique ability to remember anything he ever ate. One of those things was a banana in which arch-nemesis Boris Badenov hid a secret villainous formula. Bullwinkle does prove capable of remembering not just the banana that he ate, but the contents of the secret formula, too, which he recalls and recites with perfect accuracy. The satiric needle bursting the bubble of photographic memory here is that though Bullwinkle can recall everything about the secret formula, he has no idea what any of it means. Bringing into sharp relief the question of just how closely related is intellect to possession of a photographic memory.