Updated: Nov 9, 2018
It's a generally held view that television is a powerful and influential medium. We use television as a way to live vicariously through the characters and plots, letting us escape our own worries. Dramas are especially crafted for this because each episode takes about an hour — or six if you binge-watch like I do — for a cathartic adventure. Committing to a show brings us closer to the characters’ realities because we see difficult and sensitive social issues played out on a far more intimate scale. In that way, television acts as a teaching method.
For many of us, television can push us to think about how much of ourselves is embodied by a character. Whether significantly or subconsciously, witnessing characters go through experiences you may have in common can be a true source of comfort to those who feel as if they are alone in pain or crisis. TV can also be a source of knowledge about problems we might not deal with personally, which not only inspires us to be empathetic, but it also teaches us some realities about major issues in our society.
Let’s take a look at two of our favorite dramas that do a good job of reflecting our society and why this role of TV is positive.
If you’ve seen Shameless, you know that the Gallaghers face some serious personal challenges. The writers have touched upon common social epidemics not limited to addiction, disease, child neglect, teen pregnancy, crime and mental illness. Not all of these subjects are easily understood, nor do they connect deeply with everyone who watches. To make the best use of your time, I want to discuss one of Shameless’s most moving storylines: Ian Gallagher being diagnosed with manic depression — also referred to as bipolar disorder.
The show has been praised for how it handles the sensitive topic of mental illness, not just in the rhetoric that is used, but also in the portrayals of a mother and a son both diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Prior to when the characters’ become aware of Ian’s condition — the same one his mother, Monica, has — mental illness was not a main focal point of the show’s narrative. Monica appeared in earlier seasons and was not on any medication, resulting in a few dark and intense scenes; however, this subject didn’t become a main plot line until the fourth season of the show.
I think we all can agree that an actor whose character has a mental illness, one that the actor does not have, has a huge responsibility to make choices about the role that are respectful and realistic.
Cameron Monaghan, who plays Ian, made sure to read research and autobiographies about bipolar disorder when he was told about his character’s upcoming storyline . The caution and dedication he and the rest of the creators of the show put into making sure the story was told truthfully and authentically is what makes Shameless reflective. When dealing with a subject as sensitive as mental illness, a show that gets it right can help people who are unsure of how to handle a situation and can remind others to be there for those who need help and love.
Orange is the New Black:
Everyone became instantly obsessed with the large personalities of Netflix’s first original drama, and there are a lot of them. There’s the proud cook, the righteous newbie, the sarcastic druggie, the list goes on and on. By the sixth or seventh episode, it’s almost easy to forget we are watching a drama that reveals serious flaws in our criminal justice system. We forget because the relationships and events in the series put our countrywide social issues under a microscope, keeping viewers engaged in topics to which they might never have been previously exposed.
The various storylines in Orange is the New Black deal with religion, racism and abuses of power, women’s health and various other issues. One area where the show shines is , or frankly, about most other topics. That being said, this series gives us the most authentic, heartrending glimpses into the experiences of female inmates. e addiction. They accurately depict the daily problems of living with addiction, intimate moments between friends and how relationships can strengthen and weaken throughout recovery. As someone with family members who struggle with addiction, I was given a much-needed affirmation of my experience.
No drama can be entirely void of exaggeration or some unrealistic moments given that it is inherent in television’s nature to prioritize the story. That is why Orange is the New Black is such a strong example of a show that not only accurately depicts real issues, but also puts faces and emotions on the reality of those issues.
Even though the majority of depictions in Orange Is The New Black have been deemed accurate, entertainment media should never be the main sources of information about prison, or frankly, about most other topics. That being said, this series gives us the most authentic, heartrending glimpse into the experiences of female inmates.
These are just two examples of television shows that let us into the lives of those who may or may not be similar to us. The value of television doesn’t only lie in its ability to reflect our society; otherwise, science fiction and period dramas would be obsolete. But it is crucial to realize the connection we make to the characters and their lives because we often forget how hard a story can hit close to home.