The inference is simple: There exists a definitive, albeit subtle, social force that, more than any other, conducts a sort of free-floating or psychological dialogue with us all. More so within our family. It’s the one that’s influencing, reflecting and refracting the other. Its identity: TV. It’s a propelling force, a coincidence of technology. Yet there’s a paradox. Force or no force, TV was and is fully, and also exponentially, bound up with the family from the beginning.
In its initial glut, TV seemed to be just one more essentiality in a long line of mechanical devices—one for home entertainment. Soon, its impact was tremendous. It began to fulfill a cultural function—a way in which family values could be acted out and maintained.
The number of television sets in India, to cull one classical example, increased from 9 million in early 1987 to around 47 million in 1994. The average child reportedly watched TV for three to four hours a day [six hours, or more, in 2015]—on par with their Western counterpart, a habit that fans their negative psychosocial and familial behavior, not to speak of violence.
We all know that TV is no panacea. You also need not be a social scientist, newspaper critic, etc., to be aware of its dark side too. TV has not only eroded values. It has also tended to crowd out old-fashioned conversation and more wholesome amusements like reading. Family members have now retreated into a cocoon to watch separate programs. TV, today, seems to chomp up so much of our time, leaving the addict bleary-eyed and restless. Yet not many people complain.
It’s a monumental cultural wasteland on TV—a travesty of game shows, violence, sadism, murder, bad men, good men, private detectives, cartoons, endless commercials, screaming presenters, tacky shows, cajoling and offensive. Compare it with the movies. It’s almost the same. The only difference, perhaps, is that TV happens to be domestic. Yet the staple diet of TV programs has turned out to be more of mild comedy—if you can call it that—about extraordinary families. It is what we call a sitcom: a matter of economics, given the sheer volume of “pro-gaming,” or electronic hearth, where people don’t really like to watch themselves on the screen.
Most TV programs are parodies today, not dramas—especially in emerging India. They also often display a high level of tension, frustration and conflict within the family. The norm is middle to upper middle, or high, class families that often live in plush homes in virtually interchangeable suburbs. Popular culture, as everyone knows, works in strange ways, and it’s no coincidence that cracks have become commonplace in every picture window—more so in a televised depiction of the family being resolute, insistent and almost blind to any flaw.
That TV is wearing blinders is now passé. It makes a case for a host of treatments, with issues, both good and bad. It wants to be subtle. Hence, the common trend is that most TV folks think that the only way television could transform this charged atmosphere is through the extreme route—indirectly.
This is also one primal reason why many TV serials look like documentaries with a message, but one that is notoriously clichéd. Every sitcom allows the camera to reveal how deeply and irrevocably the notion of a family as a private sanctuary has unraveled, with all its moles and fissures. Still, it’s not everything. You can’t, obviously, solve your problems in 30 minutes. That would call for miracles—miracles out of bounds even from the technological angle or nirvana.
In more recent times, TV comedy has turned its back on the contemporary family. Yet TV has ironically scored a facile victory in the slapstick category—a genre of unprecedented staying power. Their mores have also, in more ways than one, allowed for a diversity of family representations on TV.
There’s also no denying the fact that there are any number of shows, on TV today, that are unusual, outlandish and utterly hackneyed. However, it is heartening to see that mounting desperation has led some TV producers and directors to go in for something new—a variation. As of now, the decision to let a thousand different families bloom could also invite us to recognize a new and uncertain gender and parental role: a fall from statistical preeminence of the traditional family.
We all know that the early hopes of TV as an agent of family unity may have not achieved fruition. What’s more, TV is one of the things that is also keeping families apart, thanks to the growing number of channels. Also, with a few exceptions, every TV program today is geared to a specific age. So, the odds don’t really favor a whole group sitting together to watch something everyone will enjoy. If it doesn’t happen at home, how can it happen elsewhere?
There we are, with no more than a few illusions about TV today. This itself is a heartening change. We also no longer have the delusion that the box, managed by highly qualified professionals, would solve [y]our family’s problems. So, if anybody’s ever going to do that, it’s going to have to be us.
Well, if we can’t do that, we have a choice. Forget about change and switch off your set. For one simple reason: Comedy, as William Shakespeare and Mark Twain, or one of India’s greatest cartoonists, R.K. Laxman, understood need not be docile or insipid.