The unreality of coffee cups on TV

A communications professor provides a reminder of the physical unreality of television:

There are moments when the “realism” of television breaks down: when framed photographs are poorly photoshopped, when video chats are unrealistically high-quality, and when driving scenes are staged using some very obvious rear projection. But for me the biggest threat to realism on television is something you may never have considered: the way that coffee cups that are supposedly full of coffee are plainly empty.

This video attempts to better understand both why this happens and why it bothers me as much as it does. My hope is it can help solve my problem, whether we define that problem as the emptiness of the cups (please support this cause on social media by using #EmptyCupAwards hashtag) or my own obsession with them.

This is just a small example of how television can warp our sense of reality. Even if we watch with a critical eye, television and film provides a complete universe that looks realistic (unless the presentation is emphasizing the lack of realism) but contains all sorts of weird phenomenon. In addition to the empty coffee cups, let me provide a few other examples from my own life:

  1. For a long time, I had a hard time believing that shootings and murders could happen in broad daylight. On the screen, they tend to happen when it is dark or stormy, situations that might be befitting of violent action.
  2. The full geographic scope of communities on television is often skewed – much sitcom actions takes place in a single house or in just a few locations. A show like The Simpsons set in Springfield tends to add parts to the city to suit its needs; Springfield includes these areas: “The city is divided into a number of districts, including Skid Row, the Lower East Side (a Jewish neighborhood), Springfield Heights, Bum Town, East Springfield, Recluse Ranch Estates, Junkieville, Pressboard Estates, South Street Squidport, Little Newark, Crackton, a Russian District, West Springfield, Tibet Town, Waverly Hills, Sprooklyn, Little Italy, and a gay district.”
  3. I have toured several sets in Hollywood and now I can spot them in various places. For example, the Warner Brothers lot has a city setup that is in all sorts of commercials and television shows. Or, we saw Wisteria Lane which could pop up in an Ace Hardware commercial (with some modifications).

The real issue here isn’t the missing coffee; it is that most of the time it is clear whether TV is presenting a more real or less real depiction yet almost all the time it is in small ways defying embodied life.

Chicago P.D. promotes untruths about urban police work

Gregg Easterbrook points out that the TV show Chicago P.D. takes numerous liberties in depicting urban police and crime:

NBC promotes Chicago P.D. by implying it shows the gritty, realistic truth of urban police work, much as the network promoted Hill Street Blues a generation ago. But Chicago P.D. isn’t vaguely realistic. The 15-episode first season depicted half-dozen machine-gun battles on Chicago streets. Gunfire is distressingly common in Chicago, but nothing like what the show presents. Mass murders, explosions and jailbreaks are presented as everyday events in the Windy City. A dozen cops have been gunned down in the series so far; that’s more than the total killed on-duty by gunfire in actual during the current decade. (Look on the left for Chicago; the right is the national figure.) Officers on Chicago P.D. obtain in minutes the sort of information that takes real law enforcement months to compile. A detective barks, “Get me a list of all gang-affiliated males in this neighborhood.” A moment later, she’s holding the info.

The antihero protagonist is said to have been in prison for corruption but released “by order of the police chief.” This really is not how the justice system works. Then a cop-killer also is released “by order of the police chief,” which sets up a plot arc in which the good guys seek vengeance. In the real Chicago — or any big city — a convicted cop-killer would never see sunlight again.

Okay, it’s television. But what’s disturbing about Chicago P.D. is audiences are manipulated to think torture is a regrettable necessity for protecting the public. Three times in the first season, the antihero tortures suspects — a severe beating and threats to cut off an ear and shove a hand down a running garbage disposal. Each time, torture immediately results in information that saves innocent lives. Each time, viewers know, from prior scenes, the antihero caught the right man. That manipulates the viewer into thinking, “He deserves whatever he gets.”…

NBC executives don’t want to live in a country where police have the green light to torture suspects. So why do they extol on primetime the notion that torture by the police saves lives? Don’t say to make the show realistic. Nothing about “Chicago P.D.” is realistic — except the scenery.

One excuse is that this is just TV. At the same time, shows like this perpetuate myths about urban crime and police. While crime is down in cities in recent decades, shows like this suggest worse things are happening: it’s not just gun violence but open use of machine guns, not just some crooked cops but consistently crooked cops in a crooked system, and prisoners are routinely tortured. There may be a little truth in all of these things but consistently showing them leads to incorrect perceptions which then affect people’s actions (voting, whether they visit the city, who they blame for social problems, etc.).

Ten enviable, but not necessarily realistic, TV homes

Take a closer look at the sometimes ridiculous dwelling places of ten well-known television shows.

There are few things quite as frustrating for those bunked away in crappy, overpriced rentals as watching sitcom characters putter around in homes that—in real life—would be astronomically expensive even with a steady income (which television characters often mysteriously lack.) Whether it be the NYC-based Friends apartment or the California-cool New Girl loft that’s causing a big dose of sitcom real estate envy, do have a look at some of television’s most enviable living situations—presented below in order of least to most realistic.

The Cosby Show and Big Bang Theory take the honors as the most realistic. Even as the average new American home has increased over the decades, might TV homes have increased even more?

As this is not the first article I have seen on this topic in recent months, I wonder what the outcomes of such analyses. One way to go would be to get into a discussion of how realistic TV shows should be. How much should television portray real circumstances of Americans who as a whole have a median household income around $50,000? In order to be good shows, do they have to present something close to reality? Or, do Americans prefer entertainment that is more aspirational? Perhaps there are audiences for both though the general trend seems to be that fans are not very worried about whether the homes are realistic.

A more interesting route would be to consider what effect these depictions of homes have on viewers. As sociologist Juliet Schor argues, does this give viewers a different reference group? Schor suggests when Americans see “normal” TV life – which, in reality, it typically upper class life even when the characters are supposed to be middle or working-class – they readjust their own consumption patterns to match those on TV. So, if viewers of Sex and the City see single women in New York enjoying rather large apartments, they then expect to find such places for themselves and might be beyond their means to make it happen.

How language affects our perceptions of the world

The New York Times considers new research regarding Benjamin Whorf’s 1940 idea that language affects how we see reality. Whorf suggested language limited the abstract thinking abilities of its speakers. More recent research suggests this is not the case but language still is a powerful shaper of our perceptions. The conclusion:

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives… The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Language is part of a package of culture that we all learn, particularly as young children. This framework affects our responses to reality, particularly our responses to human actions.