Ethics Enumerated 2013: Television

By Nathan Nye

I’m back with another enumeration, this time of “TV that made us think about ethics.” With the breadth of television, we decided not to focus on the “best” ethical examples or the “worst” scandals in TV, but rather talk about the shows and moments that made us consider a moral question (something TV has increasingly moved away from). Many thanks to the staff at KIE for helping us brainstorm this list!

Warning: Spoilers Ahead. Seriously, turn back if you aren’t up to date or unready to have shows ruined for you.

5. Ink Master- The joke in 2013 is that everything can be a reality show, and thus far the truth of that joke hasn’t been disproven. There are shows about storage auctions, morticians, child beauty pageants, being severely overweight, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, and getting plastic surgery to look like a famous person. Starting last year, bastion of all culture Spike TV began running Ink Master, a reality competition game show where professional tattoo artists compete for the eponymous title. The ethically interesting part of this game comes in with the “human canvasses” that serve as the subjects to be tattooed by the contestants. Often, these men and women have little say in what is being permanently placed on their bodies and no say in who is tattooing them. Occasionally when contestants are given the chance to assign their fellow competitors a human canvass, they’ll intentionally try to give them people that they believe will be hard to tattoo. This kind of subterfuge is common enough in reality television, but it’s so much more present when the sabotage is marked permanently on someone’s body.

4. Girls- Lena Dunham’s hit show Girls is the subject of equal parts controversy and praise. The second season premiered in the spring, and obviously people had thoughts. The first season’s critical arc went “Lena Dunham is brave for portraying real people and being naked a lot.” This season the bloom is off the rose and we’re being more cynical about Dunham’s show. How come Dunham’s Hannah Horvath suddenly has OCD, and gets to sleep with super attractive doctors? “That would never happen,” spoke the naysayers. For good or bad, Dunham’s show has become the go-to show for representations of young women on television, which raised a lot of questions for us at Kenan. How does representation get boiled down to one privileged white woman’s show? Do we have to care that the characters are for the most part unlikable? Is there an obligation towards responsible representation?

3. Saturday Night Live- Lorne Michaels is a god among television producers. His ability to stay current and find talent is unrivaled. Basically all the famous funny people you can think of were on SNL (or wanted to be). However, finding diverse talent has always been an issue. There have been passing conversations about the whiteness (and once incredible maleness) of the cast, but when Kerry Washington of Scandal (which almost made this list) hosted, the conversation became fully-fledged. Washington was only the 9th black woman to host in the 39 seasons the show has been on, with even fewer black women featured as cast members. How important is diversity on television? What does it mean when stars of the show say things like most black women “aren’t ready.” Some Representation 101 ethics were being brought to the national stage, which was pretty exciting.

2. Orange is the New Black- Netflix, the DVD and streaming Movie/TV service, launched original programming this year, including a show from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan about an upper class white woman going to prison for drug smuggling years before. The characters on the show are truly some of the most diverse in media right now. Women, women of color, trans-women of color, evangelical Christians, the lesbian, the bisexual, the heteroflexible, the poor, the adopted, the addicted, and the teenage and pregnant could all be found. Only one woman was white, blonde, and from a good home (like the majority of TV women), but she was the main character. While many of us were happy to see stories that featured such diverse experiences, there was a also a vein of criticism that asked why the white woman needed to be the narrative focus. The creator herself described the reasoning as making the show a “Trojan Horse,” something that looked like a vehicle for an attractive white woman while really incorporating many lives, but only because no one would buy it if she pitched it as a show about the grittier reality and diversity of a women’s prison. Brilliant TV that sparked brilliant conversation.

1. Breaking Bad- Arguably, the “biggest” television event of the year was the finale of Breaking Bad, a show about a high school chemistry teacher who starts making meth. As a non-viewer of the show, I am unable to communicate the fervor that Walter White created as an anti-hero, which was the crux of the ethical conversation. To again reference Scandal, its creator Shonda Rhimes recently said that we’re just getting to a place in American television where we’re willing to watch unlikable characters. I think that makes sense. So how should we feel about a former high school science teacher and current murderous drug kingpin? I’m not sure Breaking Bad really tells us. Many viewers wanted him to get his just reward, punishment for his crimes. Others identified with him and wanted him to get away from the law’s long arm. Ethically, there’s a question about our own identification with the immoral, but also about our ability to think beyond our own moral boundaries. While I’ve been assured that Breaking Bad is fascinating television, I can only hope it lives up to the interesting ethical conundrums it has caused.