How Should TV Shows Address Tragedy?Ramou Sarr

Whether it be as personal as the death of a loved one, a grief you feel as though you alone must bear or one that attracts national attention like the deaths of 20 young children – a tragedy that is quickly swept up by the media, making it nearly impossible to avoid, even if you need to for a bit – coping with tragedy is complicated. The availability of social media has made it nearly impossible to grieve in private, or to deal in the way that is best for you, without the battle cries of those who disagree with your coping mechanism.

I sat down to watch Bob’s Burgers Sunday night, hoping to laugh at Tina’s moaning or the pun in the name of today’s burger, and was quickly interrupted by President Obama speaking at a Newtown school. I understood the reason for it. This is his job, and there would no doubt be millions of Americans screaming about how unpatriotic he is had he not appeared on our television screens that weekend. There was a big part of me, however, that was upset. I didn’t want to be reminded of the school shooting that happened Friday, or have to think about gun control, mental health access or this giant system that contributes to how we think about all of those things. I turned my television off.

I wondered then: how is television supposed to approach this? I barely know what’s appropriate in terms of my own grieving process; television and other media outlets are on such a grand scale and reach so many people, so quickly – what responsibilities do they have in addressing tragedies and what is appropriate in times like these?

A few networks made the decision to postpone shows with topics that could be perceived as insensitive in light of the Newtown shooting. TLC postponed the series premiere of Best Funeral Ever (which, why don’t we just keep that one on permanent pause, TLC?) and Syfy pulled a scheduled episode of Haven, which was said to have featured a school shooting. While I understand the reasoning behind this – to respect the fact that essentially a nation is grieving, and they may need some time before this type of television serves its purpose and is entertaining to its audience – I’m not sure where, in a country that rates among the highest in gun related killings compared to other developed countries, the line is drawn.

In just the few days following the Newtown shootings, four people in Chicago were killed as a result of gun violence. There were four more killed in Baltimore and three more in Boston. In addition to Newtown and the Aurora shooting earlier this year, there have been over 500 homicides in Los Angeles this year and over 400 in Chicago, with Detroit not far behind. Unfortunately, gun violence is not a rarity in the United States. As morbid as this thought may be, I am not entirely optimistic that we will never mourn this way again.

One of the most challenging aspects about coping with death and tragedy is the realization that the world doesn’t stop simply because you are experiencing heartache. The world is not put on pause because you are in pain. The comfort in television is the ability to deflect some of this pain. You can zone out, focus your attention on a fictional relationship that feels really genuine for 28 minutes to an hour, and fixate on something other than whatever it is that is hurting you, making you anxious, making you wish as though you could simply disappear for awhile. I see no problem with also deferring television that may only exacerbate those feelings of pain, but I also think that it’s important for us to ask ourselves how much use it is to postpone a television show or a scene because it feels too raw in the wake of a tragedy when this same tragedy has a very good chance of happening again. I suppose my question here is whether or not we’re willing to put a timeline on this – and whether or not we’re willing to classify which tragedies require this timeline.

I do believe that networks have a social responsibility to provide viewers with content that is appropriate for their audience, but when the outside world is as unpredictable as it is, I’m not sure how practical it is for television to keep up and alter what our best interests are on an as-needed basis. Perhaps it should be left up to the viewer to self-monitor and to decide on our own what is appropriate for us, individually, at any given time.

As trite as this may be, I am choosing to end with a quote from the great thinker, Cher Horowitz, “Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.”

Image via Knovel Blog

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