Monday, April 1, 2013

How Our Lives Color Our Perception of TV & Movies

by Bill Holmes

Last month I wrote about TV Sweeps and News. In keeping with that TV theme, this month I'd like to discuss how our lives influence our consumption of entertainment. The spark for this blog occurred a few days ago when a friend, Rick, posted a blog about Downton Abbey. Rick is a lawyer and he brought up points about Downton Abbey that would never have occurred to me. The article was done tongue in cheek but he had to know the law and view the show through a legal mind to make the comments. Even if I did notice some of the issues he exposed, I would not have seen the situations in the same details he did. This friend and I converse on Google+, Facebook, Twitter or our blogs several times each week. We have many things in common going back a couple of million years but also many differences. That makes our exchanges familiar and comfortable on one level but stimulating and challenging on another level. I'm hoping he doesn't mind that I've expanded on an idea he inspired. If he does he can sue me, he probably knows a good lawyer.

We are greatly influenced by our life and experiences in how we view, perceive, consume and enjoy (or not) media. Depending on where we grew up, age, family, education, career/profession, marital status and a myriad of other factors all influence our perception. It is extremely difficult to suspend all reality and knowledge when watching a movie or TV program. My lawyer friend pointed out how inept the Crawley's of Downton Abbey were in their legal dealings, civil, criminal and fiduciary. I hardly ever notice the legal ramifications of a TV show I'm watching but sometimes the legal stuff is so ludicrous even I know it is wrong. I bet lawyers cringe about a lot of our TV shows and movies. Downton Abbey is not a show about the law or lawyers and yet a real life lawyer saw that aspect in the program. I'm sure cops and firefighters have trouble with many of the procedural shows about their professions. I have problems with our crime shows too but not so much the legal or law enforcement stuff. Those in the medical fields must be particularly troubled. It seems wonderful, caring, brilliant doctors and nurses regularly make stupid decisions and lose patients all while having sex in the janitor's closet. Of course next week Dr. Stupid will perform the first ever successful left earlobe transplant. Nurse Lovey will power the patient through the earlobe therapy to a full recovery.

IBM 082 Card Sorter
IBM 082 Card Sorter
My particular peccadillo is the depiction of technology and computers in movies and TV. Dragnet would show a card sorter. Several punch cards would fall into multiple pockets but a single card would fall into one slot (pocket) with the name of the bad guy. Well, card sorters are dumb, mechanical machines, not computers. They read one column of information at a time and drop it into one of 13 pockets, 0 through 9, two zone punches and a reject (unreadable or no punch) pocket. They were for sorting a stack of punch cards into numerical or alphabetic order, not identifying a criminal for Sgt. Joe Friday.  The other standard computer props were a whirling tape drive going backward and forward, a printer spitting out reams of paper or a bank of blinking lights. Often the whole “computer” consisted of a single tape drive. We don't see spinning tapes or card sorters much anymore but the unrealistic depiction hasn't change all that much over the years. Now everyone on NCIS, Criminal Minds, CSI or any other TV show or movie can hack into anything, anywhere in 30 seconds or less. They guess the password on the third try or dramatically only one second before the PC goes into self-destruct mode. The “computer experts” can do a query of every computer on earth in seconds and find the exact information needed. Thankfully it's a little more difficult than that. I'm sure whenever your profession is depicted on the screen you laugh or cry. I bet carpenters, plumbers and electricians hate some of the renovation shows on HGTV and DIY.
I started working in Information Technology (IT) around 1970. We didn't call it IT back then. I've worked in the Computer Room, Computer Department, Electronic Data Processing, Data Processing, Remote Data Center, Information Management and a couple of other names over the years. The media has distorted what we do and how we do it for as long as I can remember. In the 1960's, 70's and 80's, before the age of the personal computer (PC), all the media did was show a card sorter, spinning tape drive or flashing lights whenever depicting a computer. There was never any mention of the software and programming. Somehow IBM or UNIVAC or NCR or DEC or Honeywell just manufactured machines that could solve your specific problem. If you were a police department then just order one of those Crime Fighter 2000 computers and all your problems will be solved. Same for a bank but you'd need the $hylock 3000 model. Computers were depicted like other manufactured goods. A model for every need, just like cars or TVs. The worst cases I can remember were in the 1960's and 70's when programs like

If you're a sports fan and/or ex-athlete you will notice the actors who can't pull off the jock parts. A girly baseball throw, a terrible swing, a 150 pound football star linebacker and so on. Very few pull it off. I'm always amazed how many nonathletic actors have portrayed hall of fame athletes. A couple of klutzy actors can ruin an otherwise good sports movie.

Age and upbringing figure into the equation too.  Catholics found mistakes in the recent papal election reporting. Jews and Muslims have heartburn with how their beliefs are reported. Those of us brought up with the Beach Boys and Beatles find fault with retrospectives about those groups and times. That 30 year old who produces a show about the Vietnam war will probably get a lot of stuff wrong or interpret things inaccurately or at least differently than those who lived through it. If it's a show about stuff you know you'll notice what is depicted incorrectly and what is left out. It will probably bother you.

Have you ever seen a supposedly true story that takes place in a location you are familiar with? Was there a mountain in Florida? Maybe a palm tree in a Chicago suburb? Did the actors walk into the library and wind up in a courtroom? Did two places that are 30 miles apart suddenly become part of the same neighborhood? How about that beach that's a block from a city 20 miles inland. I once saw a Criminal Minds episode that supposedly took place in the city I grew up in. The FBI team was helping the local police department and police chief who had PD insignias on their uniforms and cars. That city doesn't have a police department or police chief, it has a sheriff and sheriff's department. There were several other faux pas.

I guess if you have little or no knowledge about what's on screen you're OK. If I were to watch a show about rap culture in New York City I'd probably accept most of what I saw. You got a show about architecture and engineering? I'll go along with that. That documentary about the sex life of honey bees may be 99% crap but I'll never notice. Set your show in Wyoming and odds are I won't notice any geographical mistakes unless maybe there are palm trees and beaches.

Unless it is a compelling, well written, well produced, brilliantly acted presentation it is impossible to suspend all our history and accept everything we see on screen. In my personal experience it becomes harder and harder. I find myself watching much less prime time TV fiction. There are only one or two TV shows each season that I begin to watch. Even those fade from my viewing schedule after a few episodes. I don't have much interest in most movies either. 

My problem is that I am now old enough to have seen stupid, inaccurate, distorted and slanted depictions of so many things that I have at least a passing knowledge about that I hardly believe anything I see from the entertainment industry. The news folks fall short too. Intellectually I realize that TV entertainment shows and most movies are not documentaries but I often wish that the writers and producers would do at least a few minutes of research.

No one but a lawyer would consider the legal aspects of Downton Abbey. No one but a geek would notice the depiction of computers on Dragnet or actually read and critique the database SQL queries on Criminal Minds. Only an electrician would worry about the wiring in a DIY or HGTV remodeled kitchen. What drives you a little crazy when you're watching TV or a movie?


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