“Art may imitate life, but life imitates TV.” — Ani DiFranco
If we think of television programming as an art form, the statement above can be viewed as a circular process. TV draws upon real life, condenses it, and then re-introduces it to us, often resulting in poignant moments of cultural and self-awareness. We are drawn to specific shows based on our politics, economical and social status, our belief systems and values. Shows become popular based on what is happening around us and how we are feeling about it. As a culture, this means that television captures the emotions and thoughts of the times, providing snapshots of specific eras, decades, and reactions to moments in history.
TV is a visual catalogue of who we were, who we are now, and where we’re headed. Studying this phenomenon is beneficial for several reasons; not only is it practical for the business side of storytelling (producers, marketing executives, agents, and writers all need to be educated on this subject), it exposes audiences to a variety of information and opinions, provides a way to process situations occurring in the real world, and can sometimes aid in cultural and personal development.
Politics, is, of course, a popular choice for conveying the collective conscious’ thoughts on power. While at one time we had a beautiful, moving portrayal of a positive political entity in The West Wing, a fast-paced drama by Aaron Sorkin, we are now faced with the fact that world leaders’ corruption is being exposed at an alarming rate. We are not as trusting as we once were, as indicated by shows such as Dollhouse, Boardwalk Empire, and The Wire. The X-Files used to be the odd man out where government cover-ups were concerned, but nowadays finds itself in good company. Even if you were to simply observe corporate corruption tales, you’d have a myriad to choose from: White Collar, Leverage, and Better Off Ted are just a few of the offerings.
Another sore subject for audiences is the economy, resulting in shows portraying characters losing jobs, going to interviews, living in less than ideal living conditions, and trying to live without financial stability. While work took a backseat to personal story arcs in shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, and The Cosby Show, nowadays people off-screen are worried about the job market, and so are the characters we watch every week. Recent examples are New Girl, in which some characters are unemployed and others are looking for work; The Office, which depicts people in tedious or mundane jobs, often to support family; and Community, where characters have gone back to school after finding it difficult to live in ‘the real world’.
With these two heavy, black clouds hang over us, it’s no wonder that shows became darker as the Noughts Decade progressed. We witnessed the sheer terror of the attempted erasure of humanity in Battlestar Galactica, which counted off the number of dead before the beginning of each episode. Breaking Bad, while a brilliant depiction of suffering and the human condition, gravely reminds us that our choices may be our undoing. Mad Men warns of the dangers of excess, and Dexter, another incredible psychological drama, provides insight into the makings of a terrifying criminal mastermind.
The good news is that we are, in some small ways, regaining hope. Despite the disasters that have plagued us, we are beginning to laugh again, and to believe once more that love is the most powerful thing in the universe. Look at what else has been offered in addition to the deep, dark dramas: Psych, The Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, Pushing Daisies, and Once Upon A Time.
What we’re hoping for shows us, in some ways, what we value. Shawn and Gus’s relationship in Psych, Liz Lemon’s quest for happiness in her home life in 30 Rock, and the relational stories depicted in Pushing Daisies and Once Upon A Time show that what we most value is love, often displayed in familial relationships.
Supernatural is a prime example of this value. The relationship between the Winchester brothers is exceptionally solid, and we know that no matter what they encounter, Sam and Dean will always do their utmost to protect each other. Modern Family depicts the working out of daily family life with all its trials and triumphs, which are often hysterical, heart-breaking, and relatable. Even popular reality shows like Duck Dynasty depict a family for those of us fascinated by a subculture’s relational dynamic.
Of course, this is only a brief look at the way American culture and television have influenced each other. I expect there are many more subjects, themes, and examples available to us.
As we look toward the future, I’m curious about what we’ll be viewing. We live in an exciting time, fraught with danger, but alive with possibilities. Which events of today will influence the stories told on the small screen, and how will that, in turn, impact us?