Suspending Reality – Why TV Isn’t Perfect and Shouldn’t Be

Remember in Legally Blonde when Elle Woods cons the real murderer into spontaneously confessing on the stand with nothing more than her seemingly boundless hair care knowledge? Or any crime show ever, where the investigators manage to get a license plate number or a clear face with a grainy reflection and excessive use of the zoom button?

Real life doesn’t work that way. In reality, DNA results take months, not minutes. There isn’t a magical way to zoom without losing resolution, and trials involve more wishing, hoping and praying than they do obvious posturing. Don’t expect to turn on an episode of Law and Order and see a realistic portrayal of our country’s legal system. Don’t expect doctors like Gregory House to continue to practice medicine despite both an attitude and a vicodin problem, or for an actor, chef, professor, fashion executive, masseuse/musician and whatever Chandler does to have time to sit in a coffee shop in the middle of the day, every day.

Even reality TV isn’t reality. Is Jersey Shore an accurate portrayal of an average summer on the shore? Are the Real Housewives even real housewives? No. They’re exaggerated and extravagant, often melodramatic and always terrifying caricatures of their real counterparts.

But TV isn’t reality. And it shouldn’t be.

Would you watch a about with a nice doctor that always follows procedure, doesn’t constantly berate and harass his underlings, and has a completely functional relationship with his boss and best friend? Would you watch one where a lawyer gets disbarred for lying about having a valid degree, instead of getting a second chance to re-do his schooling at a community college in Colorado? Admit it. You wouldn’t watch either one. Neither would I, and neither would the rest of America.

Just like the Fast and Furious and the Mission: Impossible film series, TV is all about sensationalism. It’s about excitement, entertainment, suspense and spectacles. It’s not a show’s job to put on a realistic portrayal of a murder trial or to accurately depict the surgical department of a hospital. Their job is to suck you in enough that you keep coming back, week after week. It’s what their bosses at the network want, it’s what their viewers want, and it’s what you want.

So yes, if you know enough about the legal system to notice and bemoan the gross errors and need a bottle of wine to get through an episode of Law and Order, the unreality of TV probably grates. But if you can suspend your disbelief for just an hour and allow yourself to be drawn into the abstract worlds TV producers create, your world will open. What could lawyers and investigators and doctors really do if the small but ever-so-irritating obstacles that constantly impede their ability to get work done smoothly were gone? We could catch every criminal, solve every case, heal every patient.

TV isn’t about hauling back the curtain on anything. It’s not about showing you what does happen, it’s about showing you what could happen. TV is an idealistic world where the guy always gets the girl and where the criminal always gets caught. There’s nary an unhappy ending in sight.

So ignore the fact that there’s no way Michael Weston could have pulled off that shot, ignore that Michael Scott would’ve gotten fired for his antics on day one. Allow the writers to get rid of the mundane barriers that prevent real life from truly being entertaining, and just let yourself be entertained. Let yourself enjoy what could be if the world worked the way we all wanted it to. Enjoy the utopia while it lasts, because in a few short minutes, pending papers, job applications and real life work will all come crashing back in never-ending waves.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat next to my father on the couch, watching some TV show or another, as he’s telling me, “That shell doesn’t match that casing!” or “Lawyers can’t do that, he’d get disbarred!” And as I keep telling him, over and over and over again,

“Dad, this isn’t real life! It’s TV! Just be quiet and watch the show!”


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