Do we want to watch our real problems on TV shows?

June 28, 1998|By Susan Reimer

THE NATIONAL Partnership for Women & Families says television presents a distorted picture of the American family, in which work and family responsibilities almost never collide, child-care hassles are rare and resolved without a hitch, and ill and aging parents don't exist.

Good thing. Or those of us with work/family conflicts, child-care hassles and ill and aging parents would watch even less of it than we do now.

I don't know about the rest of you work/family-conflicted women, but there's an overstuffed chair positioned right in front of the television in my house, and that isn't an impression of my rear end in the cushions. I have so little time to spend in that spot that I was one of the last people in America to know that "Ellen" was still gay but no longer funny.

When I finally switch off the engines and settle in for a little cable brain candy, I sure as heck don't want to see the miserable conflicts in my life replayed on the small screen. I haven't watched much television since they canceled

"Dynasty" and "Dallas," where families ate breakfast from silver chafing dishes on the sideboard before going out for their morning rides.

However, the National Partnership for Women & Families thinks television should be an instrument of social instruction and change - that it should lead, not just distract - and the report issued earlier this month is full of examples of unreal family life. As if yours weren't unreal enough.

An analysis of 150 episodes of 92 shows on six commercial networks during a two-week period in May revealed that the work/family conflict that is central to most of our lives translates into this kind of television: Militia men hold a military man's family hostage and demand that he steal an airplane from work as ransom.

Beats the heck out of shopping-cart tantrums for entertainment, if you ask me.

"The lives of most Americans have changed dramatically since the days of 'Donna Reed' and 'Father Knows Best,' " says Judith Lichtman, the nonprofit group's president. "It is time for our popular culture to catch up."

But this statement ignores the work of social historians like Stephanie Coontz. In her book, "The Way We Never Were," she set out to show that our families were never like Donna Reed's family in the first place. What is Lichtman's point? It seems to me that television is continuing its tradition of not being about the people who watch it. Television is supposed to entertain those people, to transport them from the ragged realities of their day.

The report says television should pose solutions to the complexities of family life, but those of us living it know there are no solutions, there are only coping techniques, and one of them is to watch a little TV.

How much fun would "Frasier" be if he and Niles were visiting their father in a hospice? Did anyone enjoy the episode of "Mad About You" when Jamie and Paul sat outside Mabel's room and listened to her cry?

There is no better illustration of this than the fate of "The Mommies," a sitcom based on the lives many of us live that was canceled in 1995.

The two women who created and starred in the show thought it was canceled because there were no mommies at home on Saturday night to watch it. They thought their show was the victim of Parents' Date Night USA.

No. We were home, too exhausted by week's end even for a night out at the movies. But I'd rather load the dishwasher than watch my life of loose ends replayed with a laugh track.

Too much reality.

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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