Here’s a test to see if you’re missing the point: when you watch a show like Modern Family, Parenthood, The New Girl, or any other show that occasionally depicts characters engaging in what you may call “sin”, what is your reaction? Do you change the channel in disgust? Do you simply decide to watch the show “in spite of” those characters’ sinful indulgences? Do you file the show away as a guilty pleasure?

If so, you’re missing the point.

First the caveats. Yes, it’s entirely plausible that the writers are trying to accomplish something with their inclusion of a gay couple, the depiction of premarital sex, or coed cohabitation. We may think of these as bad ideas, but they are bad ideas that real people make. These are characters on acclaimed television shows because they are believable, and they are believable because they exist in real life, in some form.

Here’s a thought: try treating television characters as if. Treat them as if they really were people you actually knew. Treat them as if they were someone you saw every day at work. Treat them as if they were members of your family. Treat them as if they were human beings – because that’s what they’re modeled after. No matter what ulterior motives the writers might have, I will guarantee you that the number one intention of a good television writer is to make their characters out to be human beings first.

Television presents us with an opportunity: to experience discomfort, frustration and repulsion to a character and keep watching. We have an opportunity to experience knee-jerk irrational fear, but to grow to empathize with those characters, and then to embrace them, not because of what they do, but because of who they are. We get to stare, consider and internalize the motivations behind these characters and their choices to a degree that we simply can’t do in real life. And because it’s a regular television show, we also get the luxury of analyzing them, considering them carefully over a span of weeks and months. We can practice care for our fellow human being.

Some may ask why we should spend our time caring for fictional people. My answer is simply an acknowledgement that caring about a television character doesn’t preclude caring about actual people. It’s less an issue of replacement as it is an issue of preparedness. If we are unable to demonstrate care and concern for television characters, it’s likely that we are reflecting an attitude we have toward our neighbor. The act of flipping the channel or turning off the T.V. may seem innocent in the moment, but real people can’t be discarded so easily.


  1. One of my favorite TV characters was Gaius Baltar in Battlestar Galactica (the new series, not the 1970’s one). Deeply flawed, cowardly, lustful, proud, potentially insane–not much to admire. But he evolves. By the end of the series, I found him one that I could relate to more than any of the others. I think that’s what good writing is all about.

    Does that mean that I want to become like Baltar? Certainly not! But by using this character, the writers were able to tell a story about what it means to be human.

    And to be honest, flawed characters are more interesting, because we know people are like that. Heros who are perfect are shallow and boring in most stories, as are “perfectly evil” cardboard villains.

  2. Being able to distinguish fantasy or fiction from reality seems to be a healthy thing, to me. Being able to choose what we fill out minds with is a wonderful choice.

  3. I agree with your sentiment, definitely – there have actually been studies that people who read fiction more often tend to also be more empathetic in their lives (Neil Gaiman was talking about this just the other day).

    What I find kind of hilarious is that you used Zooey Deschanel’s character from New Girl to illustrate this post. I don’t dislike her because she makes bad decisions. I dislike her because she’s not a real human being. She’s a caricature, a collection of “weird” and “quirky” character traits that, were she a real human being, would leave her homeless and incapable of performing the simplest jobs (I’m continually amazed that someone as incapable of interacting in a normal social manner is capable of being a teacher when she seems incapable of even properly dressing herself in the morning). I have trouble embracing her character not because of some judgment of her sin but precisely because she fails at being a human being.

  4. Actually, I was referring more to Schmidt. Should have made that more clear. He’s an awful womanizer in a lot of ways – he uses them to make up for his own self-doubt and inadequacies. There’s a lot to mine there.

  5. Haha, I wondered if that might be the case. And I agree with that assessment of Schmidt – more often than not, Jess is a lens by which we learn about the humanness of her male roommates.

  6. Richard,
    Thank you for offering a way into engaging culture, an alternative to ignoring culture, or swimming blindly in culture. Here’s to actively watching television!

  7. There is a danger of letting your discernment concerning sin being desensitized. If you see something happen enough, you just get used to it. You are no longer shocked or grieved.

  8. Is it a danger? Sure. An inevitability? Absolutely not. As Christian’s we’re called to be sober and vigilant, which is a far cry from simply avoiding sin. If we’re doing that, we never have to “get used to” sin. And if we love people, we never stop being shocked or grieved when we see something that harms them.

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