In the Orthodox world, television is often assigned corruptive, evil powers that prey upon the souls of young viewers and distort and twist their ideals. I have been thinking about this and believe that it is not necessarily the case. In fact, there are many television shows that I believe actually provide us with the situational contexts to consider problems, dilemmas and moral quandaries that engage us in everyday life. Television is an appetizing medium, one where we will not suspect that we are actually learning. We think we are watching a show in order to unwind, to relax, to enjoy the special effects or love triangles. And perhaps we are, and that is a legitimate reason for doing so. But I also think- and perhaps we do not even realize this- that we are learning from the shows we watch, that they are representative of conflicts and problems within our own lives, that we identify with the characters, that, in effect, television has become for the masses what a book might be to an English major.
What is a book? It has the power to be many things. A book can disturb or excite, broach ideas that are disturbing or frightening or describe the life we wish we could have lived. A book is our entrance to another world, a way into understanding ideas that we do not actually ascribe to. A book is a place for us to face our fears, our weaknesses, to identify with a character and feel safe- because we have the ability to detach ourselves if we like, to put our story down. A book is a kind of mental refuge.
Television is only the book made more real. Television is a sugar-coated candy, complete with special effects and exciting twists and interesting dialogue, with beautiful people and witty repartees. And certainly, not all television is created equal, just as all books are not created equal. I believe, however, that television is our foremost vehicle for allowing us to think- and what is best about it is that the majority of the people who watch it do not realize they are thinking at all. They therefore avoid feeling as though thinking is a chore, a task, a burden- they indulge in it, they enjoy it and they do not even realize it.
I would like to describe some television shows to you and tell you what I have learned from them- perhaps we have had similar experiences.
House: (Synopsis here) Aside from the important moral questions that you might expect- for example, in one episode, Dr. House confronts a woman who was raped but refuses to abort her baby because she believes abortion to be murder- House is fascinating because of the different philosophical viewpoints of its characters. House is the classic pessimist, cold, cynical, sarcastic, wounded. Foreman is an idealist, someone who believes in the good of humanity. There's a classic example of this in Whac-a-Mole:
- FOREMAN: You're a good kid. Three months from now, [shrugs] six months from now, you'll be visiting them and you won't be able to say goodbye. You're gonna know you screwed up. You'll take his bone marrow and you'll take 'em back. [sighs] They'll be a burden and a pain, and your life will never be what it was supposed to be. But you'll be proud of yourself. Your parents [nods] gonna be proud of you. [Jack considers this for a while.]
JACK: I don't think so.
FOREMAN: [sighs, then smirks and shrugs] It's what I wanna believe.
"It's what I want to believe," Foreman says, and that's the way he operates. He tries to go about his life by basing the truth off the things he wants to believe. He wants to believe that people are good, that the boy in this scenario is not going to die because he feels inequipped for caring for his family, that instead the boy will take responsibility and care for his siblings. Despite the fact that House and Foreman have opposite personalities, Foreman still respects House.
Cameron is different. Cameron is easily persuaded and easily swayed; at one point she's a humanitarian, the next second she's cold. She tries to please people; she especially wants to please House. She argues with him and asks him personal questions, but she usually ends up doing what he wants.
The relationship between Wilson and House is fascinating. House steals Wilson's pad and forges his signature while writing prescriptions for himself for Vicodin, he walks all over him, takes his car whenever he wants it, gets him into a situation where his accounts are frozen and he has to lie- and seems to feel no guilt. Probably the scene that I learned the most from throughout the entire series is this one- because of the dialogue between Wilson and House:
- WILSON: [Serious.] Why steal my pad?
HOUSE: Oh my God, you're right! I'm an addict. Thanks for opening my eyes.
WILSON: [Shaking his head.] No, I mean, why my pad? Foreman, Cameron and Chase's pads are just as convenient. But their association with you is involuntary. They're employees. I associate with you through choice and any relationship that involves choice, you have to see how far you can push before it breaks.
HOUSE: This is easy. You ask the questions, answer them and make tasty snacks. [Gets up.] Let's go try the casino.
WILSON: And one day, our friendship will break and it'll just prove your theory that relationships are conditional and you don't need human connection or deserve it or whatever goes on in that rat maze of your brain.
- HOUSE: Wilson, get out.
[Wilson guesses what House is going to do.]
WILSON: [Firm, yet unsure.] No.
HOUSE: You've lied to the cops enough for me. Maybe I don't wanna push this 'til it breaks.
It isn't a rational thing to do- but we do it all the same.
There's much more that intrigues me about House- there is the obvious question of his double set of morals. On the one hand, he pretends not to care about people; he ridicules them, embarrasses them and otherwise humiliates them. But when it comes down to it, he really does care. He's cruel, but only to a point. He claims to be forced into situations, and sometimes he is, but other times he does what we would identify as being morally right even though he does not have to.
And of course, there is the wonderful benefit of vicariously putting idiots in their place and acting out all the things you'd like to say but are too polite to express (House in the clinic always cracks me up.)
Heroes: (synopsis) Imagine that you had some kind of superpower. Perhaps you could read other people's thoughts or travel through time or manipulate machines. Perhaps you could assume the form of any person you desired. If you had that kind of power, how would you use it?
This is the basic premise of Heroes, an interesting television show that at times becomes too black-and-white for me and is most compelling when it delves into the shades of grey. In a situation where ordinary people are born with an extraordinary power, do they choose to use it for good or for evil? And what is good and evil? Does Nathan Petrelli have to allow a tragedy because Linderman explains that it is the only way to begin anew- that they must destroy the world and start afresh? Or must Peter Petrelli and Claire Bennet do everything in their power to stop the catastrophe from happening, even if people continue onward in their supposedly wicked ways?
What is allowed in the name of good? Mr. Bennet, Parkman and Ted Sprague want to take out the "Walker System." The "Walker System" enables Bennet's enemies to know where he is at all times; it is a kind of tracking device that must be eliminated for their own safety. But what if you find that Molly Walker is actually a little girl with an extroardinary power? Molly has the ability to think about a person and instantly know where they are. Can Bennet, Parkman and Sprague justify the killing of this girl to keep themselves safe, even though she is simply being used by others?
"Good" and "evil" become murky; everyone believes that they are fighting on the right side. Even Syler, a killer, is portrayed kindly in an episode where he faces off with his mother, a woman who was dissatisfied with him, who wanted him to be so much more than a "normal watchmaker." He begs his mother to be pleased with him as he is, but cannot resist the opportunity to show off his newfound powers (he has acquired them by killing others.) Horrified, his mother believes him to be possessed by the devil (also an interesting twist- if one possesses such powers, what does that say about him? Shall witchhunts commence?) and orders him out of the house.
Heroes is interesting for its special effects and the superpowers, but it is more interesting for its philosophical content. Of course, the philosophy is sugarcoated and at times far too simple, but the ideas are there.
Grey's Anatomy: (synopsis) Where to begin with this show? Every dilemma you could possibly imagine, whether it be a moral medical choice or one that has to do with relationships and friendships, has aired on this show. The show is rightfully described as being more of a soap opera; sometimes the casual sex becomes ridiculous and overblown. The show is most effective for its moments and its now-famous voiceovers (you can read them here.)
- As doctors, we're trained to be skeptical, because our patients lie to us all the time. The rule is, every patient is a liar until proven honest. Lying is bad. Or so we are told constantly from birth—honesty is the best policy, the truth shall set you free, I chopped down the cherry tree, whatever. The fact is, lying is a necessity. We lie to ourselves because the truth, the truth freaking hurts.
- Communication. It’s the first thing we really learn in life. Funny thing is, once we grow up, learn our words and really start talking the harder it becomes to know what to say. Or how to ask for what we really need.
- Too often, the thing you want most is the one thing you can't have. Desire leaves us heartbroken, it wears us out. Desire can wreck your life. But as tough as wanting something can be. The people who suffer the most, are those who don't know what they want.
And there's many more.
This is good and evil, but it's not as straightforward as Heroes. What do we really want? What's important in life? Lies, denial, communication, ethics, morals; it's all there. And it's packaged beautifully, because when you watch Grey's Anatomy, you're watching it for the relationships, the humor, the sex, the conversation. Or so you think.
One of my favorite quotes:
- DEREK: "I don't... I just... That day, when you came out of the water ...trying to breathe for you. I love you, and I want you, but I don't know what to... you didn't swim. You didn't swim and you know how to. And I don't know if I can... I don't know if I wanna keep trying to breathe for you."
MEREDITH: [pauses, shocked] "I should go. I'll go."
Do you know what it's like to breathe for somebody? To know that everything you do affects and impacts them, that you're the one holding them together, to worry that if you do something wrong, they are the ones who will fall and shatter? To be their reason? It is not, as most television shows stress, a healthy, exciting and romantic relationship. People need to know how to stand alone, to share and to give but how to breathe by themselves. To have to breathe for someone else is a terrible burden; it is one of the most difficult things to do. And it will backfire, eventually hurting the person you are breathing for.
I was pleased that the writers of the show stressed that over the yells, squawks and other screams of their fanbase.
What is television, then? Television is a way of connecting with ourselves, seeing our problems and flaws within other characters. It's not so scary, then, because you identify with others, those outside yourself. You see that others have a particular problem, that others have dealt with the worries that plague you. You understand and empathize with the mistakes the characters make; you do not judge them because they are you. And all this happens every Thursday night- often without your knowing.
I happen to enjoy watching television because I identify the plot patterns of the shows and connect them to various books I've read. This is the reason I often think about the ideas expressed within the shows, the "hidden" morals, our modern-day Aesop's fables.
And I am always entertained when I walk into school and hear everyone discussing these morals...without realizing what it is that they've learned. My father was in the basement once while my mom and I were watching Grey's Anatomy. He heard the voiceover, turned to me and said, curious, "So you get your mussar through the television show." I laughed, then agreed with him. It's true. It's much easier to watch events that are happening to others and hear the messages they give over, then extrapolate and apply these morals to yourself than to hear the conventional mussar talks where one is blamed and put down and otherwise hurt. Chocolate-covered pills, as the Maggid of Dubno would say. Television is the appealing package in which ethics, morals and other philosophical ideas are wrapped; one tastes the chocolate rather than the bitterness of the medicine.
Long live television! It is not a mere opiate for the masses. It is the tool that teaches the masses how to live and even how to think...without their knowing it.