Where are the Wholesome TV Shows?

I’m wondering if the TV shows I watch make a statement about my personality, or even more, if they influence it.  I constantly argue with my friends about the old nature versus nurture debate, with me believing biology is the stronger force, while my feminist friends holding firm to the power cultural influences.  If my lady friends are right, then television programs us.  If me and my males friends who side with biology are right, then television only reflects our baser instincts.

And I’m sure members of God’s flock will ask: Where do I, an atheist, get the moral authority to judge what’s wholesome about TV.  Maybe I can define “wholesome TV” in a way that both the spiritual minded seeking moral goodness, and the secular wanting uplifting humanism, can agree.  I’m afraid my definition will be tricky because it aims to be two things at once.  Fiction is both a mirror to personality and a microscope examining culture.  To question fiction’s purpose is akin to debugging one’s own programming.

My definition of “Wholesome Television Shows” are those teleplays that reflect positive cultural programming or ones that educate viewers about biology’s influence on human relations.  Wholesome TV should provide inspiring role models and illuminate the weaknesses we should all seek to overcome.  Wholesome fiction should constantly explore what it means to improve oneself and our species.  Whether you are a fundamentalist or a humanist, the desire for wholesome entertainment is a desire to improve the whole. 

TV shows from the 1950s often naively tried to do this, with each episode of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” presenting a moral lesson, and reinforcing conservative beliefs.  Creating wholesome fiction is not the goal of most TV writers, they seek to make money by entertaining.  Most audiences find moralizing condescending.  Uplifting is a very difficult trick to pull off.

The other night I watched an episode of Leave it to Beaver, and then rewatched my favorite science fiction movie, Gattaca.  From my viewpoint, Gattaca is the perfect example of modern, adult wholesome entertainment.  I wonder what Christian fundamentalists would make of my evidence?  Just because I don’t see God in the universe doesn’t mean I don’t see the beauty of spiritually uplifting humanity.  Vincent Freeman’s relentless drive to overcome the dictates of genetics is a uplifting spiritual quest.

The average TV viewer doesn’t want morality plays about improving their souls, they want high impact entertainment that provides fabulous escapism.  In other words, Americans crave boob tube heroin, where they can kick back in their recliners and experience opium intense visions through their flat panel screens.  This adult audience doesn’t want wholesome TV.  Wholesome TV is primary a idealized concept that parents want for their children, and some adults want because they are tired of feeling like Romans at the Coliseum when turning on their TVs.

I’m too old to wonder what I’ll be when I grow up, but I have to wonder how kids today view their future.  And if I was a proud parent, would I want my kids watching television?  If my feminist friends are right, and cultural programming is the dominant influence on personality, then what kind of code are we loading into the brains of today’s rug rats?  As a concession to my feminist friends, young women of 2009 are far different from young women of 1909 or 1809.  I would argue they are the same because of biology, but freed of cultural repression, we are seeing more of their true instinct.

The overwhelming message to kids from modern television, is teaching them that if they aren’t extremely sexual active they are failures, losers and dorks.  Following that, television illustrates that wealth is everything, that money equals sexual partners, freedom, and power.  After that, the subtle message that’s constantly beaten into their heads is violence is the best solution.  Is it any wonder I claim biology is the dominant influence on personality?  Television constantly shows alpha males fighting for prized females, or females going to inhuman efforts to be sexual irresistible.

Don’t get me wrong, modern television does have it’s good messages about tolerance for diversity, preaching ecological education, promoting GLBT acceptance, often dealing with subtle ethical issues, while regularly championing societal underdogs, and exploring political controversial topics of the day.  However, it seldom promotes hard work and discipline and usually sees the academic successful as the socially challenged.  On TV, sarcasm is presented as the supreme method for demonstrating intelligence.

The television shows I like to watch reflect a deep addiction for fiction and escapism, but I can also imagine they could also represent moral failure.  My top three favorite shows right now are Big Love, Dexter and True Blood, in that order.  Critically I’d rate them A+, A+, A-, but none attempt to be Gattaca.  None of them are wholesome, although, strangely enough, I might advocate Dexter, a sympathetic look at a serial killer, as the most wholesome of the bunch. 

Dexter Morgan knows his genetic programming commands him to kill, but he constantly struggles with the ethics of being a serial killer, all the while trying to understand what it means to be a good human, because he knows he’s not.  Don’t get me wrong, I would rate all my favorite shows M30.  I’m not sure people under 30 should watch them.  In fact, I can’t think of any primetime ABC, CBS, NBC show I’d recommend for the under 18 crowd.  Over at Parents Television Council, they could only find one show they gave their Green light to, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.  Most primetime broadcast TV shows are rated Red, and a few Yellow by the stoplight metaphor coding.

The most wholesome network show I watch is The Big Bang Theory, which the above group rates Red.  I love this geek fest show, especially because it’s the only show on TV about scientists, but I’m not sure if it’s a flattering portrayal, and it gives a bad message to kids:  Scientists are comic book reading dweebs, nothing but silly characters who can’t get laid, or worse still, don’t even think about getting laid.  What if television producers create a show about JPL scientists that was realistic, dramatic, inspirational, and encourage kids to believe science was a tremendously exciting career?  Television has totally failed at presenting science to the public.  Science fiction is usually fantasy escapism, and shows like CSI lamely present a silly, simplistic, and inaccurate view of science and technology.  CSI makes science look like slight-of-hand, only reinforcing Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Is all of this a failure of television, or really a failure of fiction?  If we consider non-fiction, then there’s a true abundance of shows worthy of young people’s viewing.  Fictional television fails at presenting role models, and its efforts of cultural programming are mixed.  Nor is fictional programming that educational about burden of biology places on our personality.  It amply illustrates the sex drive, but never reveals it as a burden.  Television only reflects a worship of sex and never deconstructs sexual impulses.  We all know rubbing our genitals together is pleasurable, but why is the quest to find the right frictional partner so common in storytelling?  And if fiction isn’t about sex, it’s about conflict and violence.  Would the Harry Potter books been as satisfying if they lacked all the killing?

Sex and death are natural parts of life, but fiction gives the illusion that sex and death are the most common aspects of life.  By not watching the local news, my crime filled city seems peaceful.  In real life I never see other people having sex.  Mostly I see people struggling to get ahead at their education or work, or improving their house and lawn.  Is the craving for fiction the urge to see what we don’t in normal life?  Is my craving for wholesome television just a craving for what I don’t see in my life?

The defining moral and ethical issue of our lives is global warming.  Will we be the generation that fiddles while Rome burns?  Many scientists are now saying we only have one decade to transform ourselves before our habits push the environment past the point of now return.  We are a generation of Noahs, but instead of building an ark and collecting animals, we’re watching television.  As far as I’m concerned fiction has totally failed to address this issue.

If I had any backbone I’d beat my addiction to fiction and throw it off completely.  I crave wholesome fiction, because I feel it’s a time in our culture when we need it.  However, my addiction to sensational fiction is too great.  It’s beauty is to powerful to ignore.  However I am cutting back on my drug of choice by reading more non-fiction.  Mostly I fix my fiction habit with television and movies, and leave reading to non-fiction, but I’m starting to watch ever more documentaries.  If I was a parent, I’d urge my kids to watch quality documentaries, but there is a third force in the nature-nurture debate that may even be more powerful, and that’s peer pressure. 

The young will find their own art to admire.  We have no choice in the matter.  The young are programmed by biology and fuel by pop culture.  I can’t image what they will look back to in forty years and see in this decade as their wholesome television.  Two and a Half Men is no Leave it to Beaver.  And what kind of role models do Britney Spears, Fergie and Lady GaGa make for young women?  Read this interview with Megan Fox to see an example of a contemporary thoroughly modern Millie.

The moral majority’s demand for wholesome TV is really a tempest in a teapot.  Just watch ABC Family and Disney Channel TV shows.  Are they really that wholesome?  They might be cleaner, but are they uplifting?  And are their shows improving this generation of children?  Is Disney’s Britney Spears a reasonable example of a wholesome upbringing and current role model?

NBC’s ER was a reasonably good wholesome show because it was very positive about doctors and medicine, providing gritty, but realistic role models.  Compare that to Gray’s Anatomy?  Is there any show on TV now that have characters you’d want for your children to admire?  I hate to say it, but Dexter the serial killer is at least aspiring to be a better human.  I don’t even see that in most shows.

JWH – 8/13/9

10 thoughts on “Where are the Wholesome TV Shows?”

  1. I don’t want “wholesome” TV. It’s boring. I don’t want or need TV programming me with normal society’s messages. I can think for myself. Give me something cool to watch! Or not, and I’ll tune out. Which I do, sometimes. I think my morals are better than those society gives me, because I think about mine. At least I believe I do. I know many don’t. Anyway, I’m going to watch more Dexter!

  2. Good essay, Jim. I think everyone, regardless of belief or lack thereof in God, has the right to make statements about the quality of the entertainment being foisted up on the public every day. And I’m certainly with you in the belief that much of what passes for entertainment on television is not something that I want my daughter emulating and that has little to do with my Christian beliefs and more to do with common sense. I don’t want my daughter thinking that having sex early and often is somehow a good and worthwhile venture. I certainly don’t want her to idolize the many celebrities whose lives are something that should be pitied, not celebrated.

    One of the things I didn’t see you mention was the way father’s are portrayed on television. Even the supposedly wholesome Disney channel often fails in portraying strong male role models. Instead father’s on television are often portrayed as stupid, misinformed, not in touch with the realities of their family, less than capable of being a positive contributor to the family unit, etc. Its pitiful that we find this entertaining. If mothers were portrayed in this manner as often as fathers are, there would be a huge uproar. Instead we just take it, laugh at it, and move on. Parents in general are treated pretty poorly by today’s television shows.

    Wholesome television, by your definition, is certainly not boring. Instead that kind of television is the most engaging and entertaining there is. I just finished watching all of the Foyle’s War series and I would certainly consider that wholesome in that it took honest looks at the effects of war, portrayed upright men struggling with how to remain morally and ethically strong when all was crumbling around them, and told very interesting and engaging–not boring–stories. I felt the same way about Deep Space Nine which we finished not too long ago, a show which, among many other things, portrayed a strong father figure who wasn’t afraid to embrace his son and demonstrate the affection of a father towards a son in a physical manner. That was so refreshing. Let them, whoever ‘they’ are, keep their celebrity reality shows, give me good, worthwhile, ‘wholesome’ television every time!

  3. I like your definition of wholesome television, James, but wholesome is such a quaint word that I almost cringe when I hear it.

    Christians, or religious folk, do not have a monopoly on morality, but I believe that the basis for morality is God not us. So even if a person claims no religious affiliation, I’d still say that basic moral programming is from God. External cultural influences such as television either reinforce those morals or erode them. Individual choices determine the outcome.

    Does television program us or reflect our baser instincts? One of the truly great questions in contemporary culture but not too dissimilar from which came first the chicken or the egg? I’d definitely go with the chicken but I’m not sure about the other. It’s probably both.

    Keep up the good thought provoking writing James.


  4. David

    I agree with your completely by defining the “basis for morality is God.” But that’s because I define morality as right and wrong defined by a higher power, and ethics as right and wrong decided by man. Few people get the distinction.

    We live in a world where most people accept God as their authority on issues of behavior. For those other people, like me, who do not see the hand of the devine in everyday life, we depend on the majority opinion to decide proper behavior. This is why it’s so hard to define wholesome television with a definition that works for both groups.

    Wholesome has a bad connotation among the secular, as being preachy entertainment suitable only for the religious minded. But among the ethical majority, they too have to define what is wholesome. Anything goes is dangerous. It’s like living an unexamined life. The unintentional consequences have to be addressed, like Carl’s concern for how pop culture portrays fathers.

    I don’t want TV producers to have to follow a modern day Hays Code, but TV shows need to be written by men and women who are conscious of the impact their art has on society.

  5. Carl

    Your point about the role of fatherhood in popular culture is an excellent one that I sadly missed, probably because my wife and I don’t have children. Also, I grew up with alcoholic parents and pretty much dismissed them as role models at an early age, so I’m probably blind to the importance of parents. Parenthood is an extremely important aspect of culture that I need to keep in mind.

    I’m currently watching Weeds, a show that is on the opposite end of the wholesome spectrum, and it does deal with the roles of parents, but in a very bad way. Weeds assumed we’re all screwed up, both young and old, and everyone has to do what they can to get by in life. I’m approaching the end of the 4th season and Nancy is just beginning to get hints of what her chosen behavior means to the people around her and society at large. Her hints come with migraine headaches, so it’s a rather heavy handed revelation to her.

    I am entertained by Weeds but it’s a vast rat’s nest of ethical issues. I can only assume the faithful would catagorize this show as moral horror, and use it as evidence for the Fall of the American Empire. Realists would probably say the show accurately sketches our contemporary society.

  6. I do not watch much TV and my children typically watch movies that I rent from Netflix. We do not have cable or satellite TV. Like most Americans, we love a good show and I am guilty of enjoying less than moral episodes of Three 1/2 Men…

    Since my kids were born, my husband and I have been careful about what our children watch. I do not believe that “bad” TV will shape their values, just that I would prefer to shelter them from examples sex, profanity, manipulation and poor ethics for as long as possible. There is enough of the “less than moral” in the real world… why expose them to it on purpose? When we do hear or see examples of “poor choice” on TV or in life, we use those as teaching points rather than comedy.

    The older our children get (now 6 & 8) I think about the social expectation of being aware of current TV shows, music, etc and I worry (only a little) that my kids may feel left out. So far, it has not been a problem and they understand when I tell them that some shows are for grown ups. When they ask why, I tell them “bad words” or maybe “too much kissing” or “the people on this show do mean things.” They get it and don’t’ complain.

    As a teacher I hear young children talk about TV shows and movies that I would never let my kids watch. I wonder why their parents think it is ok for a 1st grader to watch Nighmare on Elmstreet. Then again, I let mine watch Harry Potter and I am sure that some parents probably think I’ve lost my moral compass for it.

    The point is, TV is entertaining and it can be educational. I try not to get too bent out of shape about unwholesome shows… they are often funny. (Sorry Jim but I love the sarcasm…. does that mean I am intelligent or a boob?) TV doesn’t shape who I am or guide my morality but until my children are mature enough to realize the difference between fiction and reality, I choose not to have some TV programs on while they are awake.

  7. Minute to Win It on NBC- Very Family Friendly but not stuffy. A lot of fun and also gives you ideas for at-home games. A new season starts on NBC at 8/7c Tuesday, December 7th. Hosted by Guy Fieri. Actually very entertaining and wacky!

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  9. I think the phrase “I know it when I see it” applies to wholesome TV shows. What bothers me is that as a culture we’ve become jaded and desensitized. When a show like Dexter (which I like, BTW) is called wholesome, I think we are doomed.

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