As Seen On TV: Reality versus Reality on the Small Screen

In my house, Grey’s Anatomy is often referred to as “Grey’s Lobotomy.” 

My father doesn’t fit the bill as an emotionally-susceptible woman aged 15 to 50 that typically watches the show, but he would constantly crash our home viewing parties nonetheless, just to obnoxiously share his opinion. He’s a wise 59 that thinks the dramatization of minorities in the show is overkill, that the scenarios screenwriter Shonda Rhimes has manufactured over the years are completely implausible, and that he’s the only person that notices these things… 

I’ve watched every episode of Grey’s Anatomy three times over and will defend the series’ sanctity to no end, yet even I can’t deny that he has a point. Sometimes television provides a convincing interpretation of reality that is inaccurate, but it still annoyingly nests itself in the back of our minds. Grey’s Anatomy is extraordinarily not true to life, yet it has attracted over eight million viewers for its emotion and production values. For someone that constantly ridicules the integrity of the 15-season TV series with a derisive name like “Grey’s Lobotomy,” though, my dad sure watched the show often during my high school years. Despite his outspoken aversion to the drama, the sway of television has even managed to pull my presumptuous old man under. 

I’m a television junkie. I’ve shamelessly watched 29 TV shows since my introduction to Netflix in 2014 and intend to keep adding to the list on my phone. Sometimes TV distorts reality in a way that’s bothersome to its audience, but sometimes the same programs can be an invaluable escape from reality. I for one love the medical jargon, the far-too-frequent catastrophes, and the complicated relationships on Grey’s. After four years of watching and rewatching the series, I’ve basically become a parasite. When the series ends, I might truly meet my end.

In contrast to my father’s point of view, the fact that TV universes are so different from ours is exactly what I value. It’s incredible to me that a story told on a small screen is one of the only things in my life that easily relieves me of stress and has the ability to make me react with true, heartfelt emotion. Television holds this immense and unique power to shape our perception of the world –– and I don’t believe there’s anything we can do to stop it. 

As I’ve grown up, my entire basis for the future –– with regards to college, relationships, the workforce, etc. –– has been derived from what I’ve seen on television. A lot of what drives my decision-making and causes me to be apprehensive toward new opportunities are the altercations and negative outcomes I’ve witnessed on TV. Sometimes I’ve thought for a second that I want to be a doctor, but then I realize that while I’ve seen six medical dramas, I’ve never actually been in a hospital… During high school, I would envision myself in college and realize that I was picturing NYU in a scene from Gossip Girl. I can’t help it, though –– my brain just goes to those places. Without an experience of my own to draw from when considering the future, the only examples that come to mind are those of TV characters in similar situations. Whether or not we realize we’re doing it, instead of using our own internal judgment system to shape the decisions we make, we naturally seek guidance from television. 

As ironic as it is, I’ll admit that I have taken periodic breaks while writing this article to watch Gilmore Girls. Even funnier to me was that this idea of TV being a strong influence on decision-making was present in the episode I was watching. And if it was in a TV drama, then we know it must be true! For character Rory Gilmore, she claimed not to like school dances because she could “imagine it,” to which her mother responded, “...not really, since you’ve never actually been to one and you’re basing all your dance opinions on one midnight viewing of ‘Sixteen Candles.’” Like Rory, we often form notions about things we’ve only encountered in television or film, even though the realities differ between our lives and characters’ lives on-screen. Especially in this day and age, with boundless media at our fingertips, it becomes difficult to form nonpartisan opinions.

In an essay entitled “Life According to TV,” author Harry Waters reports extensive studies by scholar George Gerbner that demonstrate that television viewers have a generally "warped" view of reality. He explores the way that television incorrectly interprets sex, age, race, work, health, and crime and explains how such “falsehoods” are easily accepted by the average person. The inaccuracy of television can be harmless when you enjoy a show as pure entertainment –– like Grey’s Anatomy –– but it becomes a problem when TV changes our fundamental views. The average American watches five hours of television per day, demonstrating that television-watching has become a habitual part of our lives. Society has developed to a “point of no return” in which there’s simply no way that television can be eliminated as a factor of influence. 

As I think back to the recurrent discussions of reliable sources in high school, theatrical television would certainly not be considered one. Despite the fact that we know better than to cite Grey’s Anatomy as a source of medical information, what we see in a television show naturally influences us in our daily lives –– and we don’t even realize it. 

Every Thursday night at 8 o’clock –– much to my displeasure –– my dad would call my favorite show “Grey’s Lobotomy,” equating the suspension of disbelief it takes to watch the show to separating part of his brain. He claimed that the heavy-handed drama’s distance from reality was a reason not to watch it, yet he’d more often than not be sitting right beside me. Some things are easier said than done. Instead of finding a better use of his brainpower for the length of an episode, he always paid attention. He made sure to keep a safe distance between himself and the TV at all times to make it seem as though he didn’t care, but he wasn’t fooling anyone. Just like the rest of us, he’s seemingly powerless to the authority of television. 

No matter how we try to combat it, whether by turning off the cable box or walking away, TV still prevails with this irrepressible control over people. Case in point, once rid of the stress of this big writing task, I’ll return to watching Gilmore Girls. Unfortunately, I’ll also be hopelessly wishing that I lived in the make-believe town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut –– and there’s nothing I can do about it.