Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Power of Television

Television is a powerful medium.

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.
and then

    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.
Have you ever done that? I relate to that. Testing friendships, seeing how much people can take before they get sick or tired of you, pushing people to see whether they'll come back. I don't think we always do it deliberately but we wonder, in the back of our minds- what then? What now? What if s/he knew this about me? And if I do this, how will s/he react? And sometimes we really do think we don't deserve to have our friends and we can't believe it's true that we do. So we become defensive; we're cold or we ignore others or perhaps we are sarcastic, and we do this almost because we cannot help ourselves. We want to know whether the other person will stick by us, whether they care enough to stay by us and ignore what we are doing.

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.

or consider
    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.


Ezzie said...

Hmm, said I wouldn't comment, but I'm doing so differently than I said I would, so I don't feel bad. :P

While I disagree with your premise and points, and think TV - while it has its positives - is overall slightly negative, I'll give a much better example from a movie about a good moral dilemma.


Stanley, here's a scenario. You
have the power to cure all of the
world's diseases. But the price
for this is that you must kill a
single, innocent child. Could you
kill that child to save the world?
You disappoint me, Stanley. It's
the greatest good.
Silence for several beats.
How about ten innocents?
Now you're getting it. How about
a hundred?
Gabriel becomes intense.
How about a thousand? Not to save
the world, but just to preserve
our way of life.
No man has the right to make that
decision. You're no different
than any other terrorist.
You're wrong, Stanley. Some men
are put here to shape destiny, to
protect freedom, despite the
atrocities they must commit. I am
one of those men. Thousands die
every day for no reason at all,
where is your bleeding heart for
them? You give your twenty
dollars to Greenpeace every year
and think you are changing the

Erachet said...

I think some TV is good and some TV is bad, some aspects of certain shows are good, and some are not.

I was just sad you didn't put Scrubs up there on your list! I've been wanting to post about Scrubs for a while now, so maybe I'll just go ahead and do it.

Mordy said...

Sometimes I feel like a pop culture curator. Anyway, you might want to check out this book: Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You. It's about television, and the positive effects on viewers. It's a bit iconoclastic, but if you're prepared for that, it's excellent.

Anonymous said...

the only way i can see that tv helps me is escapism. i am a thinker, a worrier, and sometimes an overthinker/overworrier. tv helps me get away from myself for a short time as does reading trashy gossip mags. I have learned more from books than tv shows. i know you may think that i am subconsciously learning, but i don't think so. tv is all about images. i don't learn that way.

G said...

Chana, Chana, dissapoint me (not that this fact should matter to you at all, but still).

You want to andvance the argument that TV has what to offer and these are the soldiers you go to war with: House, Heroes and Grey's Anatomy!? House I can understand but the other two are nothing more than a modern day comic book and the newest prime time soap opera.

"Television is only the book made more real."

Ahhhhhhhhhh, stop this you're hurting me. Ever hear the phrase, "the book was better than the movie"? This is ALWAYS the case, nothing manifested on a screen can ever touch the richness created in one's own mind. TV and movies are the dumbing down of reading, more is the pity.

"television is our foremost vehicle for allowing us to think"

If this is true we are all doomed.

"the majority of the people who watch it do not realize they are thinking at all"

That's because the majority are not :)

"They therefore avoid feeling as though thinking is a chore, a task, a burden"

For most people it is.

"- they indulge in it, they enjoy it"


Now don't get me wrong, in a way I was raised by TV/Movies. I'm a junkie of the first order, just don't try and tell me that the medium does more good than it does harm in the grand scheme of things. They are, for the most part, vast oceans of wasted time and that is it's greatest crime of all.

Josh M. said...

I agree with your basic point. However, I believe that the experiences of most people with television are closer to those described by anonymous4:20 than to your intellectual vision. The strength of the message that emanates from television overwhelms the capability of independent thought in most people, rather than nurturing it, as opposed to the blander written medium. While this power of television can be harnessed for great good, it can as easily, if not moreso, be used for great evil.

Television is the tool that teaches the masses how to live and even how to think without their knowing it - the question becomes whether the entertainment and advertising industries are the teachers that we wish to select for ourselves.

PsychoToddler said...

Interesting. It seems what you like about TV is that when it's good, it's not just "black and white". It has shades of grey and makes you think about how you should feel about what's going on.

That's probably why Chareidim (who can think ONLY in terms of "black and white" and would prefer that you DIDN'T think too much) hate it so much.

Heroes is awesome. I have no interest in the other shows. And yes, I thought the "mother's day" show was very powerful.

haKiruv said...

Is everyone talking about TV in general as a medium, or prime-time shows?

Nephtuli said...

Perhaps you could assume the form of any person you desired.

No, that is not Candice's power! She can create illusions. She cannot shapeshift. :-)

Jewish Atheist said...

Good t.v. is very good. Whether it's a net-plus for society or a net-minus, I can't say. It's certainly been bad for individuals' health and the quality of political debate.

It's a lot like the food industry in that way. Good food is very good, but the way the system works is that producers find ways to game our instincts to maximize their profits. Just our natural cravings for sugar, salt, and fat are exploited by companies willing to make profits at our health's expense, our natural cravings for drama, sex, violence, and escapism are exploited to make profits even at our mind's and body's expense.

Shira Salamone said...

I recommend a science fiction "televised novel" from the 1990s called "Babylon 5." It portrays a classic battle between good and evil--and every shade of gray in between. Maybe you could borrow the DVDs.

Holy Hyrax said...

Full disclosure. I love TV. I was raised on it. I think the writing of the shows these days are better than it ever was. I can't believe you did not mention LOST!

The thing is, you are trying to dicuss the 'power' of Television and everything you have described in your examples from certain shows is something that I am sure every great author has tackled. These are not new things. The power has come a long time ago from people that did not have a TV, and had time devoted to thinking of these things in the first place.

Now you even agree that the sex in Greys Anatomy is overblown. So do you realize how some of that power is diminished by these things? It's not just the shows, its the commercials. Now I have to worry about certain commercials that my kids end up watching.

I honostly believe that the greatest scholars of our day do not spend much time infront of the tube. Infact, I believe the only reason you see such tremendous power in is because you are very eclectic and can find meaning in a jar of tuna. This is not an insult. I am like this myself. But I think when push comes to shove, perhaps when you God willing will have children, and that it DOES influence as opposed to what I used to think, you might think a bit differently.

I agree with Ezzie, the good that TV has, is overshadowed by the bad.

Chana said...

Wait! Clarification!

(Most) TV IS NOT SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN. It rots their brains, as they sing in the Willy Wonka song. Children need to learn to imagine on their own.

This post is directed at teenagers and adults. :-)

Holy Hyrax said...

>Children need to learn to imagine on their own.

Well maybe Adults should also use those imaginations once in a while again :)

G said...

This post is directed at teenagers and adults. :-)

Some things don't change with age

Chana said...

I have news for you, god.
The Internet's worse.


Ezzie said...


Okay, so you should *definitely* have made the children part clearer. It's far less bad for adults than children. That said, I like G and HH's comments as usual.

Holy Hyrax said...

>I have news for you, god.
The Internet's worse.


there there little internet, she didn't mean it

G said...

Wow, god comments.

I'm officially impressed

Ezzie said...

I don't know if it's the real God, though. I mean, come on: Quoting Revelations?

But 'He' is right on Google...

Chana said...

"God" is now being deleted.
Bye-bye, God.

Chana said...

Dear Snarky Anonymousi,

Shut. The Goddamned. Hell. Up.


G said...

Dear Snarky Anonymousi,

Shut. The Goddamned. Hell. Up.

Picture by Beauty, comments by...;)

All together now...Beauuuuuuty and the Beeeeeeeeaaaaaaast :)

alice, uptown said...

Quality TV is like a book on steroids -- unfortunately the shows that convey any message of the sort you're describing are few and far between. As far as plot is concerned, there are only about 7 in the whole world -- the best TV shows dress them up in such different clothes that you want to see more of them. On the other hand, most TV is trash, entrance into a world we don't want to live in, not once the most cursory media analysis is done, whether it be reality or fiction.

Where I'm from, 9/11 came live and uncut from our local stations. Our cable TV worked, even as the telephones failed. The images seared into people's brains reflect a very harsh reality, a place no one wants to accept exists, much less is real and unfiltered.

Of course TV is a reflection of society. What we learn from it, whether conscious or not, is a reflection on our abilities to deconstruct and to empathize.

You've written an excellent piece here, and I'm impressed.

Daniel said...

I don't know if you still notice comments this late, but I saw this when you linked to it on one of your posts today. I really liked it.

One thing you could consider, if you build on this for a longer magazine piece, is the nature of television as a medium. It tends towards verisimilitude. If film is panoramic, showing a whole world, and theatre and prose are personal, showing the world of a handful of people, then television (broadly speaking) shows life as we see it all around us, all the time. Perhaps that is why so many people think it is "dangerous"; it is easier to relate what you see to real life, even if you should not (look at the way some people think soap operas are real). But that also means there is potential to examine real life dilemmas.

Incidentally, in the UK, we have the publicly-funded BBC national TV, radio and internet service specifically to produce high-quality, intelligent programmes, and are receptive to the idea that television can be a force for good, for education and political commentary (even back in the 1950s and 1960s, BBC drama and non-fiction was dealing with issues that have only been allowed onto US networks recently, if at all), although whether standards have fallen in recent decades is hottly debated.

I confess I wrote something similar to this, albeit more light-hearted (it was for Purim) on my own blog on my favourite TV programme, Doctor Who.