With Ash Wednesday fast approaching, many home schooling families are revisiting their annual question: “What should we give up for Lent?” While there are many worthwhile answers to the question, there may be no better candidate than television.
Those of my parent’s generation might comment that this would be no big loss, since television is so bad today anyway. They might ask: “Why can’t television be like it used to, when it was good?” Of course, there’s a problem with this question, because truth compels one to admit that television has never been that good. True, the 1950s introduced some good shows such as I Love Lucy, The Jack Benny Show, You Bet Your Life, and The Twilight Zone. Then again, it gave the world Kukla, Fran, and Ollie and My Mother the Car.
From its earliest days, television was a victim of its own design. Hours of programming were forced into the otherwise-dead airwaves. It didn’t matter whether the programming was worth watching or not; something—anything—desperately had to occupy these times slots. This fact was not lost on everyone. An FCC Chairman once commented that if you sat down to watch television, you would see “blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endless commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.” These comments were not made in 2011—they were made in 1961.
When you consider shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Flipper, The Munsters, and Gilligan’s Island, you get his point. I understand that they’re not attempting to do Shakespeare quality, but these shows fail in comparison to the less-than-exacting standards of a Little Theatre casting call.
There has always been a clamor for more children’s and family shows, but when I was growing up, these shows were not that good, either. Granted, the puppet government in the “Neighborhood of Make Believe” on Mister Rogers Neighborhood gave American children a healthy introduction to the concept of monarchy, but King Friday was a bit authoritarian for my taste.
Little House on the Prairie was a family favorite in the 1970s, but to say that I found it depressing would be an understatement. I’m probably going to get some hate mail for writing this, but I don’t let my children watch the show. It’s brutal.
For the uninitiated, here’s a recap of the show: Charles breaks his ribs falling from a tree; the Ingalls family gets swindled out of their cattle; a hailstorm ruins the family crop harvest; Charles attempts to sober-up his drunken friend; workers are blown up with dynamite; Laura becomes irate that her family dare attend a funeral instead of her birthday party; a rabid raccoon terrorizes the family chickens; Mary starts a fire in the family barn; the Ingalls newborn son dies; most of the citizens of Walnut Grove are struck with typhus, killing many of them; the Ingalls dog is run over by a wagon; once again, Charles must attempt to rehabilitate an abusive alcoholic; Charles almost dies of hypothermia. That’s season one.
“But these shows are harmless,” you may say. Maybe, but watching television not only consists of what you are doing, it’s what you aren’t doing. The irony of “family shows” is that they are programs about other people that take away from the attention that you might otherwise be giving to your own family. In America, some fathers have a deeper friendship with fictional television characters than with members of their own families.
“But if I give up television, how will I get the news?” you ask. “I need to know what’s happening in: Zimbabwe/Estonia/Panama” or “I have to find out how that thing with: the Republican Party/the new state law in Arizona/the Acai crop in Brazil turned out.”
Aren’t we all “newsed-out” anyway? The news is often nothing more than a collection of the stories of the sins of others that we have no business knowing in the first place. And I don’t mean tabloid television—I mean mainstream news. “But I need to watch the news to know for whom I should pray,” some argue. But for hundreds of years, the Church has been blessed with orders of nuns and monks who prayed for the world while knowing little, if anything, of what was happening in it. Ask yourself an honest question: “When was the last time that I felt uplifted after watching the news?” Or any other television show, for that matter.
Television offers such a variety of shows, so it’s not fair to lump it all together and conclude that television is all good or all bad. After all, EWTN is on one channel while soap-operas are on the other. But Lent is a good time to-reassess the priorities in our lives. If you’re seriously addicted, try to take at least an hour off a night from television, and help your family devote this sixty minutes to God.
In one hour, you can lead your family in the Rosary, you can say the prayers that were written by St. Bridget of Sweden about the Passion of our Lord, and you can say the Stations of the Cross. At the end of this hour, you will feel uplifted, and you will have helped your family take one more spiritual step toward the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus.