Television: Beyond Entertainment
Often referred to as ‘the idiot box’, television and its mainstream content have faced much criticism in past media. The question arises—does television and all that it has to offer in current times only live to sustain the label of being termed a distraction? Media analysts have been debating this for ages, and it is only fair to break down the redeeming qualities of mainstream television for the audiences that it affects most.
In recent years, activism has reached new levels of success through otherwise unconventional practices—television shows of multiple genres being one contributor. Although this is not always the case, creative expression has evolved through history to showcase every aspect of society. Audiences are no longer satisfied with watching a meaningless drama that depicts a perfect, imaginary Utopia. They want to see a representation of their real life struggles—from bullying, gender disparity, and mental health issues, to systemic racism and overall discrimination. They want to be able to relate to characters not just in terms of happiness they experience, but also the chaos they have to endure in the real world.
‘The Defenders’ (1961 – 1965) did exactly that during its time in the spotlight. It was one of the many shows that took on social issues present in those times and provided a standpoint on them, regardless of the controversy they caused. It tackled topics as consequential as civil rights, censorship, and even abortion rights during a period when they were constitutionally illegal. One of the first episodes of the show follows the Prestons (the protagonist lawyers in the series) as they defend a doctor who performs illegal abortions in his clinic, stating that the mother’s financial problems and physical unfitness is reason enough for her to have a choice of aborting a child. A statement this bold, to have candidly aired in a time where abortion was not a common conversation topic in a public sphere was unheard of. Even with the backlash that the episode encountered, the show continued to dive into more controversial yet socially important issues, paving the path for meaningful television.
Similarly, the 2000’s series, ‘The West Wing,’ which highlights the cutthroat and competitive atmosphere in the campaign advising business featured an episode where it knuckled down on the death penalty, trying to get the fictional President to commute such a sentence. Not only did this episode and its subject matter bring about an open debate in the public domain on the topic, but it also steered Joe Cosgrove, an actor on the show, towards pursuing his legal advocacy career. With time, television has begun and continued to imitate reality.
In light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, which initiated several protests for underprivileged minorities, many directors and writers took to their shows to show their support. They incited conversation among their viewers about the injustice being faced by the black community in the real world. The new Emmy-winning series, ‘This Is Us’, repeatedly addresses all kinds of issues from postpartum depression to alcoholism. In its recent episodes, they made a very daunting point—they will not be shying away from the distress that the world is facing. They openly talk about the BLM movement, making direct references to recent protests and riots, as well as straightforwardly bringing up George Floyd and the unpleasant and unfortunate circumstances he had to endure. The show even dives further into the topic, highlighting each character’s experience with racism and exposes the negligence of its discussion in their childhood—calling out the need for it in today’s society.
‘This is Us’ is not alone in its pursuit of changing the narrative, that mainstream television will go down in history for. Even teen dramas are not afraid to reveal the real world to their viewers. The show ‘Euphoria’ takes a unique approach in its form of activism. Its episodes do not flaunt the new era discussions through dialogue, but speak volumes by depicting the cast’s simple characters and personalities. It subtly weaves in teen depression and drug abuse through its dramatic storyline, anti-stigmatizing otherwise unexpressed issues. Additionally, being one of the first shows ever to cast a transgender woman to fulfill one’s role in its storyline broke through a crucial frontier—diversifying past racial multiplicity in a major streaming show. The show makes it a priority to highlight the everyday lives of the LGBTQ+ community instead of just focusing on its already talked about issues. “Euphoria” did its part in unbolting many doors for the LGBTQ+ community in the entertainment industry.
What ‘This Is Us’ did for the US, ‘A Suitable Boy’ does for India. It is a show adapted from a novel by Vikram Seth that focuses on a young woman as she navigates through the social spheres of the country. The drama boldly mirrors society in Post-Independence India of the 1950s. It showcases the status of women in society and the religious and other discrimination that minorities faced post-partition, among other issues of the time. Mira Nair, the director, utilizes a colorful plot to expose the audience to the fact that gender, caste and religious discrimination is not a thing of the past.
On the other hand, ‘Main Kuch Bhi Kar Sakti Hoon’, a daily soap, did what the others could not. It reached a set of audiences who watch the regular 9 PM television in all corners of India. A show that spotlighted a female doctor broadened boundaries for young women in smaller towns as it openly discussed sex-selective practices, reproductive health, and the importance of sanitation for women’s health in general. The usual daily soap format, airing on a national channel, allowed all women, no matter the economic class, to be educated on matters that they would otherwise not believe in having a voice in. It even prompted women’s rights protests and initiated a chatbot forum for young girls to pour in concerns in.
In current times, where health issues have also become a topic of political discussion, ‘All Rise’, a CBS legal drama show, became one of the first to broadcast its series return in a one-off remotely produced special, spotlighting the graveness of the pandemic. It caught the attention of those people who did not see the pandemic as a cause for serious concern. It brought about awareness on the importance of the issued stay at home orders and mask mandates, amongst encouraging supporting smaller and less privileged communities through services.
Television has changed a lot since the infamous statement made by Newton Minnow of TV merely being a “vast wasteland“. Directors and actors no longer view their job simply as a way to entertain, and realise their social responsibility, and ultimately take action in a way they see fit.
Moreover, with television being the most accessible part of the entertainment industry, they reach people near and far—informing, educating, and initiating action, and this just the beginning. As the future unravels, the television industry is not likely to pose under the limited entertainment label but will encompass the vastness of all human experiences.
Featured Image Credits: Debasmita Kanungo