Well what if I were to tell you that not only do I not agree with the above assessment, but that more than that I personally credit television shows I've watched both growing up, and today as an adult with having a profound impact upon my development as a person. Mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Personally I believe that when done right, television can help people grow and develop by exposing them to representations of types of people that they might no get direct exposure to, and it can expose them to ideas that they might never have exposure to any other way.
To TV Or Not TV?
I'm the first to admit that I was part of a transitional generation. When I grew up we had only one television in the house until I was well into my teens, and for a number of years we did not have cable. When I was a kid television viewing was largely restricted to evenings and of course weekends. It wasn't until moving to another less remote town and cable becoming increasingly ubiquitous that I was thrust into the world of television as a constant presence. Today it seems to me that many young people have grown up with television as a constant presence, and perhaps without being given the tools to watch even a little bit critically. The point of this article however is not to speak to that. I am writing about my very personal relationship with television especially certain shows that I credit with having played a central part in shaping my development as a person. These shows will be offered in no particular order save as I happen to think of them. First we'll start with the one TV show that not only spawned a cultural phenomenon but is responsible above all others for the development of my moral sensibilities...
Like many kids what first drew me to Star Trek was the bright almost garish (by today's standards) colors, and stories that usually managed to be simple without being simplistic. Looking back I can see very clearly that Trek was shaping my way of looking at the world. With messages like, "The unknown is to be explored and delighted in not feared", and "No one is so important that they can't apologize when they are wrong", it is thanks to Star Trek that I have been able to avoid the pitfalls of racism, homophobia, and transphobia that so many young people from rural working class backgrounds end up falling into. Frankly I could spend this entire article writing just about Star Trek, but since the purpose is to talk about television in general not Star Trek in particular I shall stop here and move on to the next show. One which in it's own way had almost as much influence as Star Trek did, and all thanks to one singular episode.
The Addams Family
What kid in their right mind wouldn't want to live with the Addamses? The kids were friendly without being saccharine, the adults were both loving and fun loving. And the house was just... Neat! But beyond that was the fundamental message of the Addams Family. "It's not only 'okay' to be strange but strange is the best way to be." This is best exemplified in the episode titled, "The Addams Meet A Beatnik". Basically a young motorcycle riding man crashes into the Addams home and is injured. He is nursed back to health and embraced by the family who while they don't entirely understand him, don't feel they need to. They simply accept him for who and what he is. With no judgment and no rejection. Who among us doesn't long for that?
It was thanks to those two shows that much of my early beliefs were formed, but as I grew older I gravitated towards other shows. Shows that while no less engaging were perhaps a bit more nuanced. One of those I credit for teaching me a very very important lesson about war.
Another show with so much to teach. It was from MASH that I learned the very simple lesson that there is no such thing as a good war. Period. It was from MASH and the character of Father Mulcahey that I learned that other cultures beliefs were things to be respected and celebrated not dismissed or demeaned. It was from Charles Emerson Winchester the third I learned the value of having confidence in yourself regardless of what others thought of you. It was from Hawkey Pierce that I learned compassion. And it was from Major Margaret Houlihan that I began to understand that a woman could be every bit as competent as a man in any field of endeavor. Meanwhile from another show, one that many claims glorifies war, I learned a very important lesson even if it may have not been the lesson that was intended.
GI Joe: A Real American Hero
A cartoon that was all about an international peace keeping force fighting against the terrorist group Cobra. There are many who claim that GI Joe glorifies militarism and violence, and those are not invalid charges to level against the show. But that's not what I saw. I saw men and women in service of an ideal. The ideal of safeguarding not just America, but the world from those who would harm others for no reason other than that they could. And they did it cleanly. The Joes did not fight dirty, they did not torture, they did not kill civilians. They were heroes. Now today I know that life is messy and inexact and sometimes moral compromises must be made. But I still tend to hold things up to the standard taught to me by GI Joe, and am not terribly keen on anything that falls too far short of that standard.
Meanwhile as I was growing up like most people I was trying to come to terms with my gender and looking for role models who could on the one hand reflect who I felt I was but at the same time give me an example to strive for. It would be thanks to a science fiction show with a time travel gimmick that I would meet one of the characters that to this day I consider a huge role model.
Dr. Sam Beckett. Inventor of the Quantum Leap accelerator which allowed him to travel through time by inhabiting other people's bodies. Sam was a different kind of man compared to what was the norm for a television show with an action bent to it. He was thoughtful and soft spoken. Never crass towards women. This was someone who truly considered his words before he spoke and strove to be something more than a knuckle dragging caveman. Watching him I often felt like I was watching a brother self. Here was someone who understood the kind of macho nonsense that was expected of him and was willing to buck the status quo (often represented by his observer and friend Al) and be the kind of man he wanted to be, not the kind he was expected to be.
This is just a small sampling of shows that had an impact on me. Nor is the impact of television shows limited to shows I watched growing up. Even today there are shows that are helping to shape who I am as a person. One recent favorite has even helped make me more comfortable around people of color.
The Wire is from David Simon, a former reporter and author who's book Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, was adapted into the brilliant television series, Homicide: Life On The Street.
The Wire is like Homicide based loosely on Simon's books, both Homicide and his follow up The Corner, and also his years as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Baltimore is a city with a very prominent African American population, and The Wire reflects that fact. It's not unusual for there to be entire long scenes wherein only persons of color are on the screen.
Now I'm not going to lie. I grew up in a fairly racially non mixed small town. Even with an "Indian" reservation within a twenty minute drive from where I lived I still on a typical day encountered far more white people than non white. I like to think that I'm not a racist, but if I'm honest I would be the first to say that I am not always comfortable being the only white person in a room full of persons of color.
Thanks to shows like The Wire though when I encounter people of color either individually or in groups I have found it much easier to simply deal with them as people, and not become uncomfortable at the obvious differences between themselves and myself. I credit this increasing comfortability to a television show.
To be honest I doubt that it will be the last time that I will find my values and beliefs shaped very much for the better by TV.
Keep The Faith My Brothers And Sisters!