Monday, September 10, 2012

Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, argues that TV shows are detrimental because they weaken people's ability to handle extended analytical thought. Instead, TV shows supply the viewer with all necessary background knowledge about the story line and characters and so convince the viewer, at least subconsciously, that no prerequisite knowledge or extended period of learning is necessary for real education.

It occurred to me today that a second fault can be laid at the doors of TV shows: They convince the viewer, at least subconsciously, that failure (or at least long-term, extended failure) is impossible. Even being wrong is a rare occurrence, at least according to television shows. This is not healthy assumption.

Please don't get me wrong: I don't intend to give up TV (or at least rewatching old shows on DVD, which is about all I ever do). I would be lost without Stargate: Atlantis or Firefly (my newest discovery!) to help me unwind in the evenings, especially after stressful days like the one I just had today (in about 30 minutes, I'm going to finish this post and watch Firefly.) But it's still important to recognize the faulty assumptions that TV shows coax their viewers to accept and guard against these assumptions.

Just as TV shows write episodes to stand alone for the viewer, so they also write episodes to wrap up quickly. Most shows introduce, build and then resolve tension in the space of an episode or two. Even the shows that have ongoing story arcs are segmented into small, stand-alone stories. Take the first season of Stargate: Atlantis for an example: While the entire season deals with a group of people stranded in space and unable to return to earth, there are a number of small and quickly-resolved stories within that season: the military takeover of their city, the bad dreams of one of their crew members, an unexpected encounter with a particularly vicious enemy. Each of these is resolved quickly. The main characters are successful within an hour. Even if the characters are momentarily unsuccessful, they swing back to being successful almost immediately: far more quickly than in real life.

Moreover, the individual stories of each episode are usually resolved with little or no harm to the actual characters. Star Trek's "Redshirt" term proves this: It is the unnamed and unimportant crew member (not an officer) who dies, never one of the major crew members. Obviously, killing off unnamed crew members was a much more viable choice for the show writers than killing off (and replacing) major characters. Game of Thrones is perhaps the only TV show (and book) that regularly kills off favourite characters. The main characters have their adventure, watch the unimportant Redshirt die, and then head off to live long and prosper.

In other words, the main characters are always successful nearly immediately and are rarely injured or hurt in the process. Even their guesses or solutions to the problem are usually right, even if they take all of ten minutes to hit on the correct solution to the problem.

In TV, this works fine. In real life, this is wildly unrealistic and harmful if we don't realize that TV unconsciously sells us the assumption that all our problems will be wrapped up neatly and successful in a very short time.

In fact, most of our conflicts will not be resolved in the space of 45 minutes, let alone the space of 45 days. Some conflicts will last years. Individual success is never guaranteed, and huge swaths of the Bible are devoted to helping believers to approach failure with the right mindset. In Psalm 73, the author writes that there is no point in all his righteous behaviour: The wicked are successful, and he is not. The Bible is not TV.

Nor is real life. Take me, for an example: I am starting my fifth year teaching (including graduate school). The last two weeks have been perhaps the most frustrating and disappointing start to a semester in all of the last five years. I have revised my plans already, not ten days into the semester. According to TV, I should be sailing off towards the horizon (or warping off towards it, given the examples I've used in this blog post). Five years in, I should be smooth sailing. At the very least, I should see the conflicts that have appeared so quickly in the last ten days disappear equally quickly. Neither one is going to happen. This will probably be a hard semester. I hope to resolve some of the conflicts, but I have little hope that they will all satisfactorily resolve, as if they had never existed. With some students my efforts to resolve conflict and teach material effectively will be, always, completely unsuccessful.

This is why TV is dangerous: Were I inclined to believe the TV, I would feel even more disappointed and even more like a failure than I already do. Since I don't believe the TV, I recognize that the feelings will pass and I go read Psalm 73 again. Even when the world is falling apart, there is still eternity to look forward to. My conflicts may not resolve in the sweet, nicely-packaged 45 minutes that I wish they would, but they will be resolved in eternity, and I know the God who is in control of eternity.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go numb my frustration by watching Firefly. 

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