Thursday, May 25, 2023

Has Television Created Perpetual Children?

In reality, Lisa and Bart Simpson would both be pushing 40 by now and Marge and Homer would be in their seventies.

"Kids today!" the oldsters grouse, "They aren't like when we were that age!  Hell, by age 25, I had a job, a house, and a family!  My kid?  He sits at home all day long playing video games in the basement!"

Or so goes the tale of woe.  Of course, if you have "bounce-back" kids or kids who never left home, the problem isn't necessarily them, but the family dynamics in general.  Kids don't end up living in your basement without your permission.   Here's a helpful hint:  If you have a captive "gamer" ensconced in your basement, just stop paying the Internet and Cable bills.  Eventually, they will have to come up for air.  Just a thought!

But this whole thing got me to thinking that, in addition to economic concerns, perhaps our culture has conditioned young people to remain perpetual children in the family dynamic.   The television cartoon, The Simpsons, has been on the air for an astonishing 33 seasons - about 26 beyond their best period.  At this point, it is largely unwatchable and just a money-making machine for Fox.

But something else is afoot.  You see, in 33 years, Lisa and Bart never left elementary school or even advanced to the next grade (not to mention, no graduation ceremony!).  In fact, they have not aged one bit. They have stayed perpetual children in the family dynamic - never growing up, going to college, getting a job, or getting married.   Sure, there were a couple of episodes set in "the future" - one where Lisa is President of the United States, in fact.  But for the most part, the family dynamic is static.  And dynamics, by definition, are not static.

Many television shows in the past followed a similar pattern.  However child actors do grow up and often that has to be incorporated into the script.  However, most shows go off the air long before 33 years elapses, so while there is an aging process, we just don't see the eventual outcome.  In a cartoon, people can remain static for decades.

There are exceptions, of course.  In The Waltons, John-Boy grows up to be John-Man, and goes to college, buys a car, and becomes a writer and newspaper reporter (as I recall) toward the end of the series, of course.   The family does age and Grandpa Walton passes on.  Other kids leave home and start their own lives. Unlike a lot of television, the family actually ages as in real life.  Of course, that show went off the air decades ago.

Sadly, that is the exception to the rule.  Most television shows only kill off a character when they ask for more money - and the producers want to send a message to the other actors.   But for the most part, there are little in the way of dynamics in the family dynamic on TeeVee.  There are no normative cues for young people about growing up and settling down.

Even "adult" shows like Seinfeld and Friends have their characters in static modes for years and years.  Seinfeld was famous for "no hugging, no learning" as the characters acted like overgrown children, indulging every possible whim and never moving on in life.  Friends was a sitcom about a bunch of 20-somethings that refuse to grow up, and instead act infantile and hang out in a coffee shop.  The show basically ended with two of the characters getting married, but then we never see the realities of married life after that - they just sort of disappear into the ether.  Message?  There is no life after marriage.   You stay a kid forever, or a parent forever - there is no transition, no dynamic.

And this is sad, too, as the transition from geeky zit-faced teenager to adult with a job, responsibilities, career, home, and spouse, is a difficult one, but at the same time, can be an exhilarating and rewarding experience.  Once one realizes they can do this and live independently on their own, well, life really begins.  That's why I say it is a tragedy when kids just "give up" on life and become homeless with pets, or stay in Mother's basement and live online.

UPDATE:  This raises three other issues.  First is Hollywood's fascination with High School - the subject of many a television series and movie franchises.  To hear Holllywood tell it, those are the best four years of your life (high school students may disagree).  Second, is the perception that settling down, getting married and having a career and family is "boring" or at least not telegenic. And I guess there is a nugget of truth to that.  Hard to make a show about someone commuting to a job for 30 years, unless it is a wacky comedy with mostly young people, like "The Office."  And I guess the third thing is sex - Hollywood caters to young people not only because they are a huge audience for movies and television, but because even oldsters reminisce about the glory days of first love and whatnot.  Or at least, maybe that is the perception.  But I digress.

And I wonder, maybe poor normative cues from society and television set low expectations in young people.  On television, being a kid is a role to play and not some brief transition in your lifetime, before you grow up and live a life of your own.  Being a perpetual child is possible in the fictional land of TeeVee.  You can be a kid forever, and today, there is no shame in being an unemployed "incel" "gamer" living with your parents.  Well, there is shame, but not among their own peer group.  They're just living the Bart Simpson lifestyle - don't have a cow, man!  A daily trip to the comic book store, maybe some skateboarding, or playing Bonestorm on your gaming console with Milhouse.  It's a lifestyle.

Or you can be like wacky Kramer and the crew on Seinfeld, never really growing up or having a serious relationship - just a string of dates, one-night-stands, and transitory girlfriends or boyfriends.  If one of them gets serious about getting married, maybe they will be poisoned by the glue on the wedding invitation envelopes and you can dodge a bullet.  You see the message - growing up and settling down are bad things that should be avoided at all costs, even if it means killing your future spouse.  Single forever!  Perpetual childhood!

Maybe I am taking away too much from this - maybe not.  Others have noted in the past, the tendency of television - even in the early days - to use the broken home as a model.  Andy Griffith was a single Dad.  Jed Clampett had no wife, only "Granny."   My Three Sons had no mother, just "Uncle Charlie" who was some sort of gay uncle.  The list goes on and on.  The only "normal" intact families were The Munsters and The Addams Family.

And the list of "never grow up" sitcoms abounds.  Mary Tyler Moore dumps her boyfriend to move to Minneapolis and gets a job as a television producer - but never dates, never marries.  If a "boyfriend" character is introduced, he is a guest for one episode, and dumped before the next - and forgettable as well.   Larry Hagman was a perpetual bachelor and astronaut in I Dream of Jeanie, and when they got married toward the end of the series, it pretty much ended the show.

Part and parcel of this is the tired old trope used in sitcoms where Person A and Person B are destined to be together, but hate each other.  As the series progresses, they flirt back and forth between affection and hatred, with the series culminating (and ending) with them getting married.  It is so tired and shopworn a plot device that when I see a new show with a man and a woman bantering like that, I already have written every episode for the entire series in my head, and I shut if off.  Been there, seen that, thank you very much.   It is the classic RomCom striver/slacker plotline, one of ten or so that Hollywood knows and never deviates from.

And it is a trap, for a writer.  You can't have the main couple actually get married as that would remove the underlying tension in the plot that keeps people "tuning in" (an archaic phrase, even in the early days of television) week after week.  Will Sam hook up with Diane this week?  Of course not, but they will tease you and the couple will engage in the usual banter and put-down humor.

Speaking of which, I noted before how you can tell a TeeVee addict from a mile away - they engage in this put-down humor and act mystified when people don't respond to their insults.  On television it is so funny and everyone laughs!   Why is this guy punching me in the face for calling his wife a fat pig?  It makes no sense.

Normative cues, again.  Poor normative cues.  So I wonder if the same effect is present on young people today, raised on a diet of television shows where even the grown-ups never grow up.

Maybe.  Nah - television has no affect on your brain, right?  Watching eight hours of Fox News a day won't turn you into a paranoid raving maniac with a gun collection.

Right?  Of course!