What American TV taught me about America

Growing up in Russia I was endlessly fascinated by this far away land called America. Brimming with palm trees, it seemed to be filled with complicated ladies with big hair, mansions, and devious intrigue. I should mention that what I learned about America in my childhood came exclusively from American television. Every week I microwaved some chicken nuggets and plopped down to watch American TV shows in front of my grandma’s black and white TV.

For reasons still unknown to me, the TV shows that we got in Russia at that time were extremely outdated and sometimes not even American (original Degrassi anyone?). Police Academy and a soap called Santa Barbara wrongly informed me of fashions and slang popular in America, while The Wonder Years confused me even more, because no one bothered explaining to me that it was actually set in the ’60s. The most popular American show on TV was Dynasty, which originally aired in America in 1981, more than a decade and a half before I was getting to see if for the first time. It’s where Heather Locklear got her start, with awesome ’80s blonde, puffy hairdo, and I began my lifelong friendship with TV.

When my family immigrated to Boston, MA, I didn’t speak English well enough to interact with my classmates. The cultural differences terrified me and I spent most weekends going to the movies with my mom. Again, I turned to TV for education. I watched an Olsen twins movie called It Takes Two on repeat with English subtitles until I could understand every single word. (Also, I got confused because I had just watched Full House re-runs with subtitles, and there was one Olsen, but now there’s two? How much more stuff did I not know about?)

During those times TV was my tutor, my dictionary, my friend. But like a true frenemy, sometimes it didn’t tell me the whole truth. Here are some things I learned from TV about America, and then some things had to unlearn.


In Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode called “Earshot” Buffy discovers that the lunch lady has plans to poison the entire school, so obviously she kicks her butt. In general it seems that lunch ladies get a bad rep on television. Most times they are not super nice to the protagonist, and the food that’s served looks like something you’d get for lunch on Orange is the New Black.

Verdict: Not true! All the lunch ladies I’ve ever met have been wonderful. To be fair, in Boy Meets World they pay a tribute to the nice lunch lady at Cory’s school, so that’s nice. I still remember the lunch lady who fed me pizza bagels at lunch every other Friday, and I liked her.


Clueless is a movie, but I saw it for the first time on TV and was struck with awe and envy over Cher’s Closer Organizer. It let her virtually try on clothes from her closet and told her if an outfit was mismatched. Can I just point out that this was before iPhones and apps even existed? Looking back, it was very innovative for its time and also can I have it now?

Verdict: False, but it could be possible in the future! There is a program called Swivel that, for now, is sadly only available for in-store use. Swivel lets you sit in front of a screen and virtually try on accessories and clothes. It won’t tell you if your outfit is mismatched, but it’s a good start. You can see a video about it here.


When I saw Carrie Bradshaw do pretty much anything, I wanted to commit it to memory and incorporate it in my life as soon as possible. In the episode from season 4 of Sex and the City Carrie comes clean to Aidan about mistakes she’s made in the past. They are cutely having a couple of beers draped in brown paper bags outside of a Soho restaurant. Aiden tells Carrie she is “still his girl.” Aw.

Verdict: Wrong! Consumption of alcoholic beverages in public areas is illegal, be it on the beach, on a picnic or outside a hip restaurant with your furniture designer boyfriend. I have a personal story of this TV episode leading me astray. It involved a policeman telling me I can’t believe everything I see on TV, and me dumping out my plastic cup cocktail.


On this New Girl episode appropriately titled “Eggs,” Cece and Jess get a little freaked out by their gynecologist friend, who tells them that after the age of 30 women loose a large percentage of their eggs. Cece and Jess quickly hop over to a doc’s office to get a fertility test. What!? This was definitely the first time I heard about this, and at my next doc’s appointment I timidly brought it up.

Verdict: True! There is an easy blood test that your doctor can do (it is often covered by insurance) which tells you your fertility level. Whether it is for a piece of mind or for family planning, this is a useful tool to have access to, if you so desire. Thanks, New Girl!


In “What Happened in Vegas: Part 1” on Friends, Ross and Rachel get married. And then quickly get the marriage annulled in the next few episodes.

Verdict: Kind of true. It’s actually fairly difficult to get a marriage annulled under normal circumstances. There is a strict list of requirements that must be met for an annulment to be granted. However, if you had a few too many Cosmopolitans in Vegas and decide to get hitched, you can claim that you were under the influence of alcohol and get the marriage annulled, as long as claim is filed within 60 days of the ceremony. This doesn’t mean that you should do it though. Or go ahead and do it, what do I know? I got a perm in high school, so I’m not to be trusted.

These are some of the things I’ve investigated—I’m sure there are more. I keep learning something new every day. For example, someone recently explained to me that the saying is actually not “sheep calling the kettle black,” which makes more sense.

All in all there are some useful things that TV taught me. It exposed me to many types of people and situations that I got to learn from. New critically acclaimed shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent came on the scene and introduced new types of characters and life stories, raising awareness and thus promoting acceptance and tolerance. That’s a terrific lesson to learn. So I say, keep watching!! For me, even though at times it has led me astray, I still love TV and I know it loves me right back!

Polina Frantsena is a “legal alien” hailing from Russia and now living in LA. When she is not writing, you can find her watching re-runs of 30 Rock, eating snacks or procrastinating. Sometimes she makes faces in front of the camera for a living. Instagram: https://instagram.com/polinafrantsena/  twitter @polinafrantsena

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