By now, comparing ourselves to the lives of others as seen on social media has become a popular lament. But there’s another unhealthy comparison I suspect many of us are guilty of: comparing our lives to television.
Is television the new social media?
Today is the golden age of television. While once thought of as a frivolous form of entertainment, television has eclipsed film to be a popular and influential yet intellectually complex art form. With the proliferation of streaming services, TV is more accessible, in demand, and talked about than ever.
Television is the new novel. Television is literature. Critically-acclaimed TV shows offer rich character development, complex plotlines, cerebral themes, and topical conversation starters to everyday life.
Television is so pervasive in our culture — everyone’s binging something these days — but I haven’t seen much discussion on how this pervasiveness impacts us, psychologically.
I am a Millennial who engages in the usual flounderings of my demographic, which includes comparing myself to others when I feel unsuccessful and unproductive. Then one day, in the midst of my complaining about not having done enough in life, my girlfriend said: “You’re comparing yourself to TV shows. Stop.”
Why TV Is the Perfect Medium for Comparison
The movies have always been somewhat glitzy. Many people still visit cinemas to see them, and they often feature big budgets, big name stars, and big special effects.
In contrast, many beloved TV shows are based around “normal life.” Sure, there are fantastical TV shows like Game of Thrones and mundane movies, but the episodic nature of TV makes it more relatable. (Life, after all, is so much more than 120 minutes of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement).
Many shows are based around young people in their 20s exploring their identity in a big city (Girls, Broad City), as well as pursuing romance (Friends, How I Met Your Mother). Many other series are centred around workplaces, from the exciting (ex. Brooklyn Nine-Nine) to the mundane (ex. Parks and Recreation).
So it’s no surprise we see our own lives in these shows because they are designed to be more representative of real life. But TV is not real life; TV is TV. And TV is idealistic.
Why TV Is a Terrible Metre Stick for Life
Highlight Reel vs. Behind-the-Scenes
The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
- Steven Furtick (author and pastor)
For starters, people on TV look good because there is literally a whole team of professionals behind the scenes whose job it is to make them look good.
TV is also like social media in that you only see the highlight reel, a highlight reel that doesn’t contain scenes of characters going to the washroom, paying their bills, or Netflixing most of their Saturdays away.
TV characters seem infinitely more social than us in 2020 because they still do the thing where they randomly show up at someone’s house just to deliver a short message. Because texting is cinematically boring.
All the witty dialogue, character chemistry, and suspenseful plotlines you see have been carefully drafted, revised, and edited by a team of professional writers.
We spend 33 years of our life in bed. Yet how often are characters in bed (excluding sexy-time scenes) on TV? TV shows are only 20–60 minutes in length, so even if the characters were real people, you’d only be seeing 20–60 minutes of their life per week.
You could probably make a TV show out of the most exciting 20–60 minutes in your week.
So the next time you wonder why your job isn’t as cool as Jake Peralta’s, or why your nights aren’t as “legendary” as Barney Stinson’s, remember: there’s a reason why. Jake and Barney’s lives are not real, and even if they were, you’re only seeing a small slice of it.
Good Drama ≠ Healthy Relationships
I’d be lying if I said I don’t watch TV for the romance. Shipping characters and betting with your friends on which ship is endgame is the spice of life and Twitter drama. But it’d be unwise to expect our own love lives to be as exciting.
Your love life does not need to follow the narrative trajectory of a 90s will-they won’t-they sitcom. In fact, realistically speaking, Ross and Rachel’s relationship is extremely unhealthy. As is Ted and Robin’s.
So don’t doubt whether you’re with the right person because the way you guys met and got together was relatively drama-free.
Narrative of the Dominant
Finally, English-language TV only represents a narrow sliver of society — that of white, upper/middle-class, university-educated, city-dwelling, heterosexual, and cis-gender people.
(To be fair, diversity in TV is improving, but by and large, English-language TV is still only representative of a small proportion of viewers.)
Girls received particularly sharp criticism regarding this. Sure, the show was ground-breaking in the sense of being created by a young, twenty-something showrunner and being so woman-centric. But the girls in Girls are quite homogenous, upper-middle class New York white women. From the get-go, we learn that the main character’s parents are able to support her financially while she figures out her life.
I frequently run into elements in TV that are the exact opposite of how I experience life. For example, it’s common in TV to make fun of adult characters who still live with their parents. But for children of Asian immigrants like myself, living with your parents as an adult is normal, even expected, because not doing so can be seen as abandoning one’s elders. So when I lived with my parents and kept seeing these jokes, I couldn’t help but feel excluded and misunderstood.
Just Stop Comparing
As social creatures, I don’t believe we’ll ever get rid of our instinct to compare ourselves to the next human, fictional or not. Just look at all the parents who compare their kids to other people’s kids in order to “motivate” their own kids (parenting tip: don’t do this).
So, unfortunately, I don’t have a solution for you, dear reader. TV is awesome, so don’t stop watching it if you also think it’s awesome. Perhaps just keep it in the back of your head next time that your life doesn’t have to be a sitcom. And while we’re at it, maybe turn off the TV once in a while and enjoy life outside the screen.