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.