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TV Is Not Dead: 3 Ways Television Makes the World a Better Place

More people than ever before are tuning in, all around the world. And we are all the better for it.

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I remember one elementary school teacher who frequently showed us educational videos with Strong Social Messages (that appeared in bold type on the screen, in case we’d missed them) about how all people are equal, and racism is bad. I’ve always been very interested in social justice, but I remember writing notes to my friend Kim during each of those. But I caught almost every episode of The Cosby Show and loved it.

My grade 10 English teacher used the phrase “show don’t tell”about a thousand times (apparently repetition helps), and I wish she’d tell my grade 5 teacher and most politicians that. I mean, what’s better? Telling people not to be racist, or making Cliff and Claire Huxtable into characters no one can resist: funny, successful, smart and quirky? Nevermind the issues the show actually raised.

Then there’s Golden Girls . As Broadsheetwrote, “The show was one of the most female-friendly and respectful looks at the experience of aging while female ever broadcast on national airwaves, simply by showing women -- living, talking, having sex, making friends, cracking wise, living full lives together with energy and engagement. And if you happen to catch one of the reruns that still air, chances are good you'll laugh your ass off.” I’d venture to say laughter and entertainment are more effective social change weapons than any form of direct messaging.

There are plenty of others: The O.C. earned respect for teens (gaining big prime-time adult audiences) by authentically and respectfully portraying the angstof teenage characters and juxtaposing it with the similar angsts being experienced by their parents. Teens…they’re just like us. Who knew? Sure, The O.C. featured an attempted murderin its second season finale (with the almost laugh-out-loud Imogen Heap “Hide & Seek” as the soundtrack, spoofed by Saturday Night Live a year later), fist fighting (usually on the beach), drug use (mostly the mixed up kids), and gasp, underage sex (let’s just say this show made it clear that abstinence-only education isn’t working) but without those, would the portrayal of the difficult and even admirable sides of teen life have any credibility? It’d just be another version of Saved By the Bell .

There’s also True Blood . It’s an open secret that those vampires and monsters are really stand ins for today’s others: minorities, gay people, even terrorists. In the show, vampires were just granted equal rights in the Constitution after centuries of legal persecution. The squeaky-clean lead female character, Sookie Stackhouse, falls for Bill, a 200-year-old vampire, because he’s more ethical, respectful and mature (though eventually more boring, I’m afraid) than any of the immature, violence-prone human males around. In the show, vampires are basically considered to be sub-human terrorists by the humans, but it’s clear after a couple of seasons that it’s human attitudes towards them, especially the evangelical Christians, that are prejudiced. And that vampires’ individual identities are as varied as humans’ are. The oldest vampire leader, Godric (Allan Hyde) lobbies for non-violence towards humans except in self-defense, then kills himself in despair at the end of the second season, after witnessing too many human-instigated atrocities.

InEllen’s fourth season, Ellen DeGeneres’ well-liked, book-store-owning character Ellen Morgan came out as a lesbian, shortly after Ellen DeGeneres herself came out publicly on Oprah. Next to Oprah herself, Ellen is now the most-loved daytime talk show host, and also just took Paula Abdul’s judging spot on American Idol, the most-watched reality TV show. I bet more than one person has changed or at least softened their stance on gay marriage due to liking Ellen.

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