Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Television isn't completely evil

I like watching television. I can't deny it. I like a good story, and when a TV show has a good plot and well-played characters, I can watch it for hours on end. (Just look at the TV shows I have in my DVD collection, and you'll see what I mean.) So finding a JAG marathon on the USA network and a Stargate SG-1 marathon on the (unfortunately-named) Syfy network, I was torn. Finally I settled on the Stargate SG-1 marathon to watch as I got ready for work, as I liked those specific episodes better than the JAG episodes they were showing this morning.

I know we often hear tales of the evils of television: how it shows too much violence, how it turns the minds of our children to pudding for the likes of Alec Baldwin to eat (and yes, I find it highly plausible that Alec Baldwin is an alien whose mission is to eat human brains), how it makes our children fat. But there's another side to the story. At its best, television powerfully portrays the human condition. Good writers recognize that the best stories are ones that have an authentic feel. In other words, they show us how we truly are. Yes, the Cosby Show was somewhat unrealistic in that every problem could be solved in thirty minutes, but the show portrayed real problems that real families face. Yes, M*A*S*H had some outrageous stories, but the patients did not all miraculously survive and the doctors weren't "saints in surgical garb", as one episode pointed out.

One double-episode during the seventh season of Stargate SG-1 in particular makes this abundantly clear. One of the characters--not a main character but a major character nonetheless--dies during a mission. Though the medium of science fiction sometimes allows characters to be resurrected, this character was not. And the characters respond according to their natures. The more emotional character--yes, she's a woman, but she can still outthink you and kick your ass at the same time--mourns. The intellectual character, though grieving, is forced to consider the personal, ethical and moral ramifications of sharing or not sharing the events around this person's death with a news crew on the base who are assembling a documentary about the Stargate program. My description of these things is cold, I know; the portrayal of these things is not. The characters are moved by the events. And the more the characters are moved, the more the audience is moved as well. And it is the very realism, even in the midst of a science fiction show, which makes that possible.

Not all television is edifying, but not everything that's worth learning is learned from books. Even television can be an asset in learning about our fellow man. While I don't suggest making all human observations based on watching television, not everything you see there will rot your brain. (Take that, Alec Baldwin!)

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