There are people who pride themselves on never “wasting time” watching television. Others take advantage of the many educational programs on TV to learn new things. Shows like NOVA, Planet Earth, Through the Wormhole, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and Life, can tell you much about our world as well as the universe beyond it. I admit that I enjoy watching Ancient Aliens because almost every episode shows me a place on planet Earth that I never knew existed: Puma Punku, in Bolivia or Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan, for example.
More entertainment-focused TV shows often include subliminal messages that slide through the screen unnamed and unacknowledged. Some of them are downright silly while others can be dangerous. Some concern real things while others deal with fictional tropes. Sometimes it’s fun to step back and look at these messages for what they can tell us about our society, our culture, and—most of all—the mindset of television scriptwriters.
Here are 10 things that TV taught me over the years arranged in no particular order.
Drinking whisky solves everything. No matter what bad or difficult thing has happened in your life, your first response should be to pour a drink of whisky. I wrote about this trope before in “Casual Drinking on TV” and speculated in that post that it results from indirect product placement by an organization like the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. Or it could be that writers actually drink this much and think that everyone else does, too. Whatever the reason, it’s a bad message for at least five reasons, all of which you can read on the previous post.
- Women can take a punch and keep fighting. You see this all the time, particularly with superhero movies in which female supers slug it out with big strong men and come up victorious. Even on shows with normal female characters, however, one can see a woman hit with full strength by a man and then get back up. That is very unlikely to happen in the real world where men are much stronger and Wonder Woman doesn’t exist but it does send two messages: (A) It’s OK for a man to hit a woman; (B) the consequences for the woman are not so dire. Those are bad messages—and dangerous ones.
- Doors can be kicked down. You thought all those locks on your door would protect you. If you live in New York City you probably have at least three locks on your front door — probably more — and one of them is a deadbolt. They make you feel safe. Not on TV, though, where locks can be breached with one kick from a detective, drug dealer, sociopath, or angry boyfriend. If the script calls for a character to go through a locked door, he just braces himself and kicks hard. Down goes the door. Hah! I’d like to see them try this on Mythbusters.
- The FBI is dumber than a killer. One of the many reasons I don’t watch programs about sociopathic killers, cannibals, brilliant super-criminals and other deviant crooks is that the script forces them to be smarter than the law enforcement agents chasing them. If not, the story doesn’t work and the show falls apart after a couple of episodes.
The FBI, in particular, is tarred by this brush. They often act dumber than a stump, unable to pull basic evidence together or think one step ahead of the bad guy. They let interdepartmental rivalry tie their hands by obscuring important evidence. They insist on believing only the most obvious facts while dismissing anything else even if it might help them solve the case and get the killer off the streets. This message is demeaning to our law enforcement agencies and condescends to the viewer. It could even encourage a viewer to commit a crime because he believes that he’ll never be caught by the bumbling law enforcement agents he sees on TV.
- Keep important evidence secret. And speaking of evidence, cop shows often depend on the people involved keeping important information to themselves. Friends and family of both the accused and the victim don’t speak up, usually for contrived reasons that serve the script better than the viewer. Cops and FBI agents don’t tell one another what they need to know because they each want to solve the case by themselves and become a hero. And the message is that you become the hero by keeping important evidence a secret. The viewer wonders, of course, why they don’t just talk. Eventually we get disgusted by the manufactured stupidity and stop watching.
- Sports are more important than news. I like to watch 60 Minutes because I can learn from the different segments of this news magazine. I’m clearly not the only one because @60Minutes almost always appears on the list of Top 25 shows for any given week. Yet @CBS will pre-empt 60 Minutes for almost any sporting event that takes place on a Sunday afternoon.
NFL football is the most frequent offender in this regard, of course, but it’s not the only one. I have seen 60 Minutes delayed by golf, tennis and soccer as well. It’s not like these programs share an audience demographic so there’s no lead-in from one to the other. The message is clearly that a sporting event—any sporting event—is more important to CBS than one of its most successful news programs. Go figure.
- Vampires are messy eaters. If you have ever watched a vampire program—HBO’s True Blood is a good example—you know that vampires have no table manners. When they drink someone’s blood, they spray it all over the room and end up with blood smeared from eyes to chin on their own faces. Blood soaks their clothing. Even the oldest, most urbane, and most sophisticated vampires seem incapable of eating like ladies and gentlemen. Really, now, how silly is that?
When humans go out to eat, do we throw food on the restaurant walls? Do we stick our faces in the plate and come up covered with Bordelaise sauce and mashed potatoes? Do we walk out of the restaurant with shirts soaked in spaghetti sauce or salad dressing? No, of course not. That’s because (A) we have table manners; and (B) we paid a lot of money for that food and we want to actually, you know, eat it. I would expect vampires to feel the same way about blood which is usually a lot harder to come by than dinner in a restaurant.
- Everything is complicated. OK, I get it. When a character asks what’s going on or why another character has done something inexplicable or what has caused to people to break up or get back together again, the scriptwriters can’t take the time to rehash the plot up to that point. So the writers’ two favorite words are: “It’s complicated.” End of explanation, no need to go any further because the audience already knows. This phrase is used so often that it has become like a meme: you know the character is going to say it before he/she does. That’s dull, boring, lazy and stupid. Think of something else to write, folks. Get creative. Earn your outrageous Hollywood salary. We’re tired of hearing, “It’s complicated.”
Or it’s “some sort of” something. This one started with Star Trek Deep Space Nine and I attribute it to Showrunners Rick Berman and Michael Piller.
The original, classic Star Trek became a cultural phenomenon largely because its scripts were written by real science fiction authors such as David Gerrold, Theodore Sturgeon, D.C. Fontana and Norman Spinrad. These authors used the episodes they wrote to deal with important issues of the day but placed them in alien environments. The writers used wit, metaphor, parable, inference,humor, and other devices to get an often-difficult message across in a way that viewers would accept.
The writers of Star Trek spinoffs were not science fiction authors or even very creative. A lot of times they phoned it in. Instead of doing a little research or even just making something up, they would describe whatever they were seeing as “some sort of.” So instead of a specific type of nebula, force field, shielding device, weapon, or radiation that was based at least in part on science, we hear the vague description, “some sort of force field.” It’s cheap and lazy and it has spread across television like verbal Ebola. Now I hear this unfortunate phrase on programs of every type and genre.
BTW: When Rick Berman left Deep Space Nine to inflict his mundanities on Star Trek Voyager, Ira Steven Behr took over DS9 and turned into one of the best, most exciting science fiction programs on television. By then, however, most of the audience had already left. If you get a chance, check out the last season of DS9 and you’ll see some great science fiction.
- Guns fix any problem. Whether this started with the Wild West programs of the fifties and sixties or came out of the country’s current gun culture, the guns-for-everything approach is also frustrating and sometimes boring. If a character has a gun—the “great equalizer”—on TV, he or she can do anything. Guns make you strong. Guns make you a superhero. Guns get you respect. Guns make you successful. Actually, depending on your opponent, guns don’t always work that well.
It annoys me, for example, to see characters trying to stop zombies with guns. Here’s the thing about zombies: they’re already dead. You can’t kill them again, you can only stop them and the only way to stop a zombie with a gun — unless you have bullets made of Valyrian steel or dragon glass — is to shoot it in the head. That’s a tough shot to make, especially when your target is lurching wildly in your direction. Or you have to get so up close and personal that the zombie can reach your brains first. Ick.
Me, I’d opt for a flamethrower, at least at a distance. That wouldn’t stop them either, at least not right away, but it would make it easier for me to escape because the flames would keep them from seeing me run. Guns would also not be my weapon of choice for fighting vampires—strigoi or otherwise—insects, nanites, replicants or any other opponent that’s too small, too fast, or too dead for bullets to affect them. I would prefer fewer guns and more creativity.
Those are the ten lessons for today. If you have any others, please feel free to Comment on this post. I’d love to see them.
Oh, and I would categorize 60 minutes as sensationalized news which sometimes flows into outright fiction. Mike Wallace was the master of the ambush interview and selective tape edit. Anyone with half a brain quickly learned to not agree to a CBS interview without their own camera present.
As far as Star Trek goes, most of the classic shows from season two and three have not held up well. The boys and I are working our way through Enterprise on Amazon, and we haven’t figured out what is so bad about it. Then again, we liked the reboot movies as well. The kids loved Deep Space nine, mainly due to Odo the shapeshifter, I thought the quasi-religious thing with Sisko was weird, but overall enjoyed the show.
If you have never read the original script for city on the edge of forever, it’s worth a look. It’s a great peak into the mind of Harlan Ellison, a man with a lot of pent up anger, and his view of Roddenberry, whom he viewed as too much of a coward to challenge the science fiction tropes of the day to create really great scripts for the original series.
And yet Roddenberry has influenced more people than Harlan Ellison ever has. I once sat on a convention panel with Harlan and he was OK, though, despite his ferocious reputation.
If you want to see whiskey drinking, watch Justified. Puts most classic westerns to shame. It’s a good show too, with some spectacular acting. Besides, anything that introduces the term “hillbilly noir” should be checked out for that fact alone.
We watched every episode of Justified, despite the drinking — not to mention the occasionally sickening violence.