Are Fewer TV Characters Reading?

Outside of Mad Men, conversations between and among our favorite television characters about contemporary fiction are rare. (Hey, in the early 60s, Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything was contemporary fiction.) But the appearance of books (printed or electronic) in general is getting rarer still, and that disturbs me.

I get it. Who wants to watch someone on television reading a book? Total snoozer, right? But do you remember The Cosby Show? Home Improvement? Mad About You? The rash of domestic comedies that followed? Pick any one of these shows and they probably had at least one scene that opened with a character reading. When a second character came into the room, the book was put down and the conversation began.

Lately, though, when a book is on the set, it’s often used as a metaphor. As in, “I’m just going to sit here and read my book and ignore you.” Or it’s a prop, intended to show personality. The super geniuses of The Big Bang Theory don’t seem to own any books, but least one has a Kindle, displayed on set in screensaver mode. (Inevitably, the non-owner would believe screen-saving mode to be less efficient than simply turning the thing off.)

Often, in comedies, novels are portrayed as something to be avoided. Hence elaborate plot lines involving kids blowing off book reports, using Cliff Notes, or, in one of my least favorite Seinfeld episodes, George spends more time trying to obtain and watch a copy of the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s than actually reading the book so he can impress his girlfriend at her book club. Novelists are often ridiculed as posers. Or, like Nathan Fillion’s Richard Castle, are rarely seen writing.

What are we showing kids? People who read books are suckers? Reading and writing books requires too much work? People who have books in their homes are either rich or snobby?

Some say that certain behaviors shown on television, like sex and violence, have influence on the more easily influenced of us. Others defend the content as merely holding up a mirror to our culture. Do you think this dearth of small-screen reading is a reflection of the evolution of our society, or a slippery slope to illiteracy?

Maybe I should simply spend more time reading.

(Photo courtesy of Fox Animation)

About laurieboris

Writer, editor, proofreader, stand-up comedian in another life.
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5 Responses to Are Fewer TV Characters Reading?

  1. JenD says:

    That’s a good question and I don’t really have an answer. I’m never really sure if art imitates life or if it’s the other way around. Maybe a little bit of both? Do you think when characters smoke cigarettes, more people decide to light up for the first time? Or drink Pepsi instead of Coke? I’m not so easily influenced, but are others really that easily swayed?

  2. JenD says:

    Really? How old were they?

    The more I ponder this post, the more I’m starting to think the sit-com format is more of a reflection of life right now. How many shows now feature harried parents and extended family that includes a gay couple with kids?

    I think it would be nice to see more characters reading or playing a musical instrument. It seems only pompous types (like Frasier) are ever allowed to read books, go to museums or to the opera.

  3. laurieboris says:

    Funny! I was thinking about Frasier when I wrote about the negative stereotypes of readers. Seems like any time there’s a reference to going to the opera, museums, etc., one character is invariably being dragged there by the other and possibly falls asleep. Or when a kid plays a musical instrument on television shows, he or she is horrid and screechy. Ironic that one of the few, recent examples of playing instruments was Charlie Sheen’s character. Yes, I was talking about his piano. ;)

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