Connecting through television and TV culture
It’s Sunday night and Edinburg native Freddy Vela’s apartment living room is crammed with about 14 other people. They’re on the couch, sprawled across the floor and gazing at the television set. As 8 p.m. approaches, the chatter of the party begins to die down.
The closing credits of the current show roll. Vela, along with viewers across the nation, await the start of the newest episode of the hit television show The Walking Dead.
AMC network’s original zombie apocalyptic series took the world by storm when it premiered in 2010. The show, spawned from a six-year comic book series, had 15.2 million total viewers the night of the fall 2012 mid-season finale for its third season, according to AMC.
“Some people don’t have the proper channels, so instead of downloading it any type of way, we just all get together at my place,” said Vela, an alum nus with a bachelor’s in theater/TV/film. “It’s pretty cramped, but it’s all worth it for the show.”
As the first cable series in television history to reign as the biggest show of the fall season, The Walking Dead is just one of the programs that has become part of a culture, linking people together like TV has since the 1950s.
“I think like 80 percent of America watched when Lucy had her baby in I love Lucy. Television early on was bringing us together,” said theatre/film/TV professor David Carren. “By the late ‘50s everybody had a TV set. Everybody was connected.”
The black and white sitcom, following a married couple in New York City, was television’s most-watched show for four of its six seasons. It peaked with the Jan. 19, 1953, episode in which Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky, receiving a 71.7 rating.
In television’s early days, people walked around humming the tune of theme songs from shows such as I Dream of Jeannie and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., but today it’s productions such as Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad that stir up conversations in the masses.
“Something happens and it’s all over the Internet in a matter of minutes. Especially with (The Walking Dead), it creates those water cooler moments that haven’t been created in a really long time,” 28-year-old Vela said. “I really think that this show does that very well in creating that ability to connect with other people that you have never met before.”
Vela, a GameStop store manager and self-proclaimed television aficionado, explained that it’s popular TV shows like The Walking Dead that can make even perfect strangers instantly click.
“At my store I get a lot of customers and I ask them, ‘Are you a fan of The Walking Dead?’ and they’ll say ‘Yes,’ and we can have a good 5, 10 minute conversation about what we think is going to happen,” Vela explained.
Science fiction enthusiast and UTPA alumna Alyssa Trevino explained that not only do people connect with one another, but a connection with the characters develops, reeling viewers further into the story.
She drives around in her 2010 Chrysler Sebring with a license plate frame that states “My Other Car is a TARDIS,” referencing her favorite show, Doctor Who. The BBC hit is based on a regenerating alien time lord who travels through space and time saving the world through a public police call box called a TARDIS.
“It’s easy for people to get attached to characters. No matter the character, I think we find a piece of ourselves in them,” the Mercedes native said.
Carren explained that although TV shows have been creating bonds for decades, people weren’t always able to easily relate to the characters or their neighbor. Women and minorities were often portrayed with token representations if they were on television at all. It wasn’t until the rights movements became a part of culture that the content on screen changed.
“TV reflected a White, Protestant world in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s,” the former TV writer and producer explained. “Television looks a lot more like we all do now and offers ideas that appeal to more now. There’s a wider audience for television in a way because of that.”
Without this particular cultural shift, certain aspects that Trevino looks for in a series wouldn’t exist.
“Most of the shows that I watch are very feminist. I love when TV shows embrace feminism culture, especially with Buffy,” she said referring to the 1990s science fiction show Buffy The Vampire Slayer that featured a female protagonist.
Another aspect of television Trevino enjoys is how it can serve as a momentary ticket out of her everyday routine.
“I also like to escape from reality I guess. Television kind of helps me with that,” she said. “It also helps me concentrate. I don’t know how that happens, but when I was in school I’d always have to have something in the background while doing homework.”
Living vicariously through characters in stories is a trait that people have been doing for centuries, according to Professor Carren. He believes that the idea of television began in the Bronze Age when stories were told around the fire inside a stone home.
“When we first started the very beginnings of civilization, everyone lived in a house together,” he explained. “The oldest person of the house would be the storyteller. They would keep everybody entertained, calm and collected throughout the night with their stories until everyone went to sleep.”
With television as the modern day storyteller, according to Carren, the only thing that has changed is that now people get their stories from a glowing, moving picture box.
“People love stories,” he said. “People don’t want to live in the present, they want to escape from reality. Reality is always going to be boring to some degree. We want adventure and excitement.”
While Vela admits that he talks strategy, attempting to put himself in the character’s position, playing the “What would you do?” game, he believes The Walking Dead offers a very real and relatable feeling.
“It’s about this small community and this one man being alone in the world. It’s just about having that sense of feeling alone,” he said. “I think the show does a really good job in creating that atmosphere where there is no help. You are the help.”
Television has advanced from film to high definition and with three-dimensional technology making its way into movies and on TV, Carren thinks the connection between the audience and on-screen stories is here to stay.
“I don’t think it’s going to go away, at least not in the foreseeable future,” he said. “If we have collapse of civilization, somewhere along the line we may not have food or water or air, but I think one of the last things to go would be TV because it keeps us together.”