We all have a favorite TV show –– “The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “New Girl,” “Law and Order.” We often find ourselves deeply involved with the characters, empathizing with them through hard times and celebrating their successes. We talk with our friends about our favorite episodes, referencing funny lines. We recommend our favorite shows to others, inviting them into this alternate world that we have found comfort in.
Television engages us in a uniquely accessible way: Americans watch an average of five hours and four minutes of television each day, according to a 2016 Neilson report. Since TV is such a large part of our daily lives, it makes sense that shows should work to serve as a reflection of our environment. TV, after all, is a form of representational art; it seeks to recreate the social reality of its viewers while also offering a form of escapism. TV serves as a mirror for society –– one that reproduces our social image and causes us to reflect on ourselves.
Because of this desire to connect with audiences and represent relatable experiences on television, shows often end up producing what some would call politicized content. This could include discussing issues of race relations or demonstrating the effects of gender inequality. Storytelling is an effective argumentative structure; it humanizes sociopolitical issues in a way that makes them tangible and accessible.
When TV shows include controversial issues in story lines, they undoubtedly run the risk of alienating some viewers, even causing some to make rallying cries to boycott particular programs. Some say the primary purpose of television should be entertainment rather than taking a stance on current issues. This perspective on the role of television completely ignores the utilitarian purpose it serves in humanizing abstract sociopolitical issues for viewers.
A few weeks ago, “Grey’s Anatomy” aired an episode centered around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and young Dreamers. To give a bit of backstory, one of the interns was from another country and had come to America when she was 2-years-old. She was the perfect example of a Dreamer who has never known any other home, and because she ran a red light, she was going to be deported. This is not the first time Grey’s Anatomy has used its popularity to address difficult issues such as rights for LGBTQIA+ individuals, physician-assisted suicide, racism, women’s rights and sexual assault.
Programs like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Fosters” and “Blackish” recognize the importance of addressing sociopolitical controversy through the medium of television. Including difficult topics in a storyline entertains readers because it resonates with them. The writers are using these shows to discuss issues that concern their viewers.
Television has served this role for decades. In 1968, “Star Trek” televised the first interracial kiss on screen. This show is still popular today, not in spite of the stance it took on a controversial issue, but because of it. The show’s writers were in touch with their audience –– they wrote about topics their viewers wanted to see.
Sometimes, the depictions of these issues can be dramatic or seem excessive –– especially when one show tries to cover every relevant sociopolitical topic within one setting and cast. Sure, Hollywood may include same-sex couples on TV shows at a higher rate than actually live in the United States, but this type of diverse representation allows writers to make as many of their viewers as possible feel as if their story has been told.
Although you may not agree with the political stance a certain show takes, consider the purpose behind it. View it as an opportunity to see the issue from the point of view opposite yours rather than something to spark a boycott of the show.