Reality v. Entertainment

fullsizeoutput_d1cI just finished reading She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, for the second time. Since I don’t remember much about books I read, it may as well have been for the first time. Anyway, it is a coming-of-age story of a girl, Dolores, which begins when she is about 4 years old. Her first vivid memory is of that age because a television was being delivered to her house, a momentous and exciting event. Her family hadn’t owned one before.

The television comes to play a significant role in her troubled life as she uses it as an escape. Dolores retreats to game shows and soap operas when her own life became too painful. The book isn’t about the role of television in our lives, but it got me thinking. While I don’t relate to her behavior exactly, I do know that House Hunter’s International and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show got me through the Bush Administration, Dubya’s that is.

I have established a rule for myself in this new retired life I lead. I won’t turn on the tv until after 5:00 p.m. I think it is a good rule. I’m still not always productive, after all now social media can be a tremendous time waster, but knowing that I can’t turn to television makes the odds better that I spend my time constructively.  It is too bad I didn’t think of that rule when my kids were little (and there was no social media). Sometimes when I felt drained and unmotivated, I sat and watched talk shows, watching a whole day slip away. And, after watching, I felt yet more drained and unmotivated.

Thinking about television brought up another issue: the messages we are fed. My view of myself as a woman was certainly affected by the images presented. I have written about this before (here). I certainly couldn’t measure up to the standards of Mary Tyler Moore and Marlo Thomas – though I don’t blame them personally. We were inundated with unrealistic views of women (and men, too, I suppose) in programs and advertisements. I don’t know how much that has changed, though I think there has been some movement to offer more diversity.

But there is something else in the images that television offers that troubles me. We have read a lot about violence on tv and in video games and how that may desensitize people. But, we haven’t read, or at least I haven’t, about the portrait of the criminal justice system – particularly the police.

Gary and I, especially Gary, are fans of police procedurals – like the original Law and Order. We watched Hill Street Blues back in the day and NYPD Blue.  These days Friday nights are spent watching Hawaii Five-O (actually I just keep Gary company for that one, I do crossword puzzles) and Blue Bloods. I know that these shows, all of them, are not depictions of real life, though the better episodes can make me feel real emotion. I have been thinking lately about whether they do damage in how they manipulate you to feel that it is okay to rough up a suspect. They are counting on you to root for the cop, even as he (and it is most often a he) physically and/or mentally abuses a suspected perp (I picked up on the lingo over these many years).

I know we aren’t watching documentaries. But how much license are they taking? I realize that the writers are putting together a 60 minute episode (far fewer minutes with all the commercials) where everything has to be resolved. Actual cases take years to move through the system. That license, to compress events, is less troubling to me.

I don’t know which is worse. If the way interrogations are portrayed is realistic, then we have major problems with police abusing their power. If the picture painted is fabricated, then what is the impact on people’s beliefs about the police? I think the ideas we have about our world are shaped to some degree by the entertainment we consume. Attention, though not enough, has been given to stereotypes of women, African-Americans, and other minorities. Studies have been done on the impact of violent content. But, I’m not aware of discussion of this – is the depiction of the way the police do their work done responsibly on television and in movies? And, if it isn’t, what is the cost of that misrepresentation?

By the way, She’s Come Undone, where I started this blog post, doesn’t get into this question at all. But like all good books, it spurred lots of thought.

5 thoughts on “Reality v. Entertainment

  1. If you want to see how police act in real life go to YouTube and watch any First Amendment Audit. A person videos public servents in public while preforming their duties which is legal & you’ll see how the police react. Spoiler alert, most police try to violate the auditors rights & some police actually do violate the auditors rights.


  2. I must admit I often feel conflicted over this issue. On the one hand, we keep hearing about African Americans mistreated and in some cases killed by police. Some of those attacks have been captured on video and to my untrained eye look indefensible. I can barely imagine what it must be like to be targeted by police like that.
    And then I hear about police being attacked, being shot and sometimes being killed while doing their job. And it makes me wonder about the dangerous nature of police work.
    And, in the end, I just wonder how we can stop talking past each other and start building trust. As you like to say, Linda, problem solving.
    Thank you for the provocative post.


  3. I agree that television can have a large impact on how society in general thinks about an issue or profession. Think about how social conversation changed when Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom. That, “Will & Grace “, “Queer Eye”, and other tv shows made homosexuality more acceptable to the mainstream public. I don’t know much about either police procedurals (don’t watch them) or actual police procedures, but having attended dozens of civil trials in my years as a paralegal, I can say that many tv shows present an unrealistic view of the way lawyers and judges behave in court (maybe Mark has more insight on this). I rarely watch law office shows because of this. I think the real problem is not that tv shows take dramatic license in the interest of entertainment, but that viewers tend to believe what they are watching is realistic. I’m a big believer in suspending disbelief in order to enjoy a program or movie, but I also think we have to remind ourselves that just because something is on tv, it doesn’t mean it’s an accurate portrayal.


    1. True. Gary can’t watch medical shows because of how unrealistic they are. It might be interesting to hear how cops view these shows. No doubt television has also contributed in positive ways, as you note with more acceptance of homosexuality. Interesting things to consider – thanks again for commenting.


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