The idiot box has always been a source of intense debate. One school of thought says the excessive violence, sex, drugs and obsession with celebrity culture that is shown in TV is a main cause behind the moral decline of the society. The other group says, as a sign post of our collective thoughts, the job of TV entertainment is not to shape our behavior but to reflect it appropriately. Therefore if the society in general is embracing and cheering all things violent and crazy, the TV shows should naturally focus on that.
If we consider TV as a mirror that reflect us rather than a compass that guides us, what does this mirror say about us?
It says that the world since 9/11/2001 is not the same as we know. That’s why our TV is full of shows that focus on apocalypse or a dystopian world where humanity is destroyed by nuclear warfare or spread of a biological agent and then appears a messiah or super hero as an unlikely savior of the day from the zombies or vampires. It says that we are pretty distressed with our life in general and only way we feel superior to other people is by judging them constantly and pulling them down below us; a trend which has given rise to Reality TV shows like American Idol or shows that reflect the vanity of celebrity lifestyle like Keeping up with Caradashians. It says that in a world of temptations and complexity, the line between good and evil are getting blurred and not everything can be categorized as black or white. That’s why our traditional heroes and leading men are all becoming Anti-Heroes: flawed, dark, brooding, intense, and occasionally bad like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, The Arrow, The Newsroom, House of Cards, House of Lies, Boardwalk Empire and many many more. It says that we have a yearning to seek for authenticity and simplicity as we are growing tired of all the repercussions of excessive materialism. That’s why Travel and Cooking related shows presenting both fantasy and escapism are growing faster now than at any time in history. TV says that our trust in authority is at all time low. That’s why we have obsession towards fixers or strong men who can twist an arm and leg to get their way like the characters do in Homeland, House of Cards, Scandal, Ray Donovan etc.
Not all things in TV tells a dark story. Take the case of TV comedies. The famous TV comedies of current days tell us about the apathy that we feel towards workplace. That’s why a lot of comedies these days like The Office, Parks & Recreations, and Brooklyn 99 etc take the absurdities of workplace behavior as a source of biting comedy. Lets dig one step deeper and look at the characters and how these characters are fleshed out to relate to us. In most cases, the leading men in these comedy shows are a “Cool guy who refuses to grow out of his man child antics or frat boy days” (Ref: Brooklyn 99, How I Met Your Mother, Scrubs etc.). It shows a collective yearning among today’s youth to not take responsibilities of life and consider entering adulthood as the end of all things good. In these shows the young characters almost always hang out together in a bar or café with their friends (i.e. Friends, Sex & The City, New Girl, Happy Ending) showing our intense desire for the bygone days with a strong nostalgic tinge, where friends where always there, life was simple and there was no fear of missing out.
In an interesting study, Lauren Zalaznick collected the top 10 shows as per Nielsen Ratings since 1960 till now and measured it against three key viewing parameters – Comfort (Watching the TV show to feel good or entertained), Social commentary (Watching the shows to know about the social issues that affect my world) and Irreverence (Watching the shows to challenge the existing norms). When we start plotting the points in the charts, we see that in the 60s and 70s we saw TV mainly to comfort us. But as the world grew more restless, our tendency to look at the idiot box to give us discussion fuels than basic comforts and entertainment increased. Our collective conscience is getting crowded with dark thoughts. So are our TV Shows.