overthinking the idiot box

May 2, 2005

Escapism Ain't What It Used To Be

by Richard Jeter

The year is 1975. Though the troops are home now, the conflict in Vietnam and the graphic images that accompanied it on America's TV screens are still fresh in everyone's minds. Needless to say, it remains a particularly raw nerve in the national psyche. Energy crises wrack the economy, threatening to spill over into a full-blown recession. The continued growing pains of the post-Civil Rights era are echoing across the country, bringing with them a newfound sensitivity and awareness of racial issues and stereotypes, especially in the media. And two of the biggest shows on television are about... the daily lives of soldiers drafted into a bloody, violent war, and a lower-middle class bigot? As counter-intuitive as it may seem considering the circumstances at the time, M*A*S*H and All in the Family are undeniably two of the most popular shows ever to hit the airwaves.

In a medium such as television, so frequently viewed as a vehicle through which to escape the gloom and doom of the real world, why would so many people gravitate toward programs that hit so uncomfortably close to home? At first glance, and if someone felt like besmirching the quality of these classics, you could blame a lack of channels and options at the time. This is not an isolated phenomenon though.

Fast forward to the present day. In the wake of 9/11, stories of war and the threat of terrorists using all kinds of new and incredibly nasty weapons dominate the news... whenever they can be squeezed in between stories of kidnapped children and violent crime, at least. International tensions are higher than they've been since the end of the Cold War. You've got anywhere between 7 and 700 channels to choose from, depending on how many cable executives' kids you've decided to help put through college. And the biggest shows on television are about... violent crime, missing children, bio-terrorism, and espionage.

So now what?

We've certainly moved past the era of having to pick from a collection of three or four networks, and have been blessed with remote controls to facilitate even more program sampling (at a rate of roughly 100 channels per minute, if you're like me). Yet still we gather around these shows which, rather than allowing us to distance ourselves from the world, bring the day's issues into our lives as seen through a Hollywood filter. According to Nielsen Media Research, 27.5 million viewers tuned into CSI last week. Alias, 24, Law & Order, and Without a Trace habitually win their time slots. The more light-hearted and Episode -avoidant sitcoms, however, consistently struggle, even with the power vacuum left behind by the departures of Friends and Frasier, which will soon be compounded by the demise of Everybody Loves Raymond. A lot of these mega-shows' viewers aren't lining up behind other sitcoms, but rather throwing their lots in with dramas and reality television.

I conducted a bit of informal polling in preparing for this story, asking 100 people if they thought these ratings results were odd, and if they would have expected viewers to be drawn more heavily to programming that would at least let them try to forget about the troubles of the world for awhile. A whopping 83 of them said that the present trends made perfect sense to them. When asked why, I got the same answer time and time again.

When it comes down to it, people want to watch programs that involve topics they care about, and it's kind of hard not to care about wars, crimes that could potentially impact your family some day, massive shifts in society, issues of national security, or where and when the next big atrocity is going to occur. This is especially true in this era of 24-hour news networks and saturation coverage of every little thing. It's difficult to go an hour without hearing about a story, much less escape it entirely. This is also one of the reasons why your average, fluffy, no-brainer sitcom just doesn't cut it with a lot of people anymore. When you were young and afraid of the monsters under your bed, you didn't want your parents to tell you a completely irrelevant story to try and calm you down, no matter how amusing it may have been. You wanted them to look under the friggin' bed and tell you there were no monsters hiding out down there.

People want to see these uncertain and volatile issues that they worry over get played out under ideal conditions. A world where the bad guys are easily identifiable, instead of walking among us undetected. Where the good guys have the best of intentions, and don't take photos of each other abusing and torturing prisoners. Where the terrorists always make a mistake and their secret plots are always thwarted, instead of nobody suspecting a thing until the body count reports are being released afterward. Where children are found alive in dramatic scenes involving doors being kicked open and detectives charging in valiantly to save the day, instead of being recovered by dive teams in a lake near their house. Seeing these best-case scenarios is encouraging, and it's exciting television to boot.

The networks realize this, and the proliferation of topical, suspenseful programming that is "ripped from the headlines" is no coincidence. When it comes to periods of national duress, be it the 1970s or the opening rounds of the 21st century, television becomes less about escapism, and more about reassurance that everything's going to work out okay. That humanity, humor, and hope still have a place in the world. The bad guys get caught, the good guys go out for beers afterward. We love our Brady Bunch endings, where there isn't a problem in the world so bad that it can't be solved in half an hour.

So as long as tensions remain high and the people remain nervous, programs like these will continue to arrive on the scene, and do well once they get there. Just look at how many CSI and Law & Order spin-offs have come out in the past four years alone. And honestly, if it makes people feel better about how our own, much less scripted existence might end up working out, then I say more power to them. It's not often television can have even a remotely positive impact on the world.

Just please... no more reality TV. If anything, Mr. Romance and The Swan just make me even more depressed about the future of humanity.

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