Television and Reality

Parenthood-aspergers A couple of days ago, I linked to a great essay by Neal Gabler in the LA Times about how television shows often depict close knit families and friends, who spend hours trading jabs and sharing tender moments. Gabler said that in reality, most people aren't hanging out together and are drawn to these shows, because we all secretly wish that we had closer ties to others. David Brooks responds.

I'm lucky enough to be embedded in a community with a lot of friends and family. While our family isn't nearly as beautiful or witty or dysfunctional as the family on Parenthood and our homes aren't nearly as nicely decorated, we are pretty involved in each other's lives. Actually, sometimes we could all use a break from each other.

So, I watch Parenthood not because of the depictions of extended family life. I watch it primarily, because I like to look at the nicely decorated houses. All that lovely molding! Check out the landscaping around that house!

I also watch the show, because one character is a child with Asperger's Syndrome, and the drama revolves around how the family has to adjust to this fact.

While I was waiting for the kids to get out of social skills class last week, the other parents and I chatted. I asked if anyone watched Parenthood. They all did. They didn't watch it for the house porn (crazy, right?), but because of the Aspie kid. I asked them what they thought of the show. They was a ten beat pause, and one of the moms said, "they don't make it bad enough." Everyone nodded and smiled.

Or funny enough. Yesterday, Ian and I read his Ready Freddy reader together. At one point, the hero of the story, Freddy, was day dreaming in class until the teacher spoke, and he "came back to earth." Ian was completely baffled. Why did Freddy go to the moon? How did he get from his classroom to the moon and how did he get back? Where's his rocket?

The actor who plays the Aspie kid also doesn't quite get the correct voice quality and the spaced out, eye gaze of a real Aspie. I told Steve that I thought that they should have gotten a real kid with Asperger's to play the role, but Steve didn't think that you get get a real Aspie to play the part. The director would go crazy.  "No, you can't wear a Viking helmet on the set. No, you have to say your lines and not talk about Spongebob. Stop walking in circles! This isn't the time to build the most magnificent Lego creation. You aren't allowed to wear the same shirt again. Go, hug that strange lady who is pretending to be your mother."

Yeah, it wouldn't work.

28 thoughts on “Television and Reality

  1. I find some set design and photography in films distracting. Some mediocre movies, on mundane topics, have beautiful sets, and amazing background sequences.
    I tend to grouse to my husband, “No one making less than $300,000 a year can afford that sort of house in (expensive US city.)” “Well, the movie was rather inane, but the sunsets were astounding!”
    And, for some reason, tv detectives prefer ill-lit spaces, preferably a cool blue.

  2. laura, this is why I come over to your house. I mean the conversation and snacks are great and all, but I really come to scope out your fabulous kitchen.

  3. While sometimes I lament ANOTHER gathering, I wouldn’t want it any other way. Julia and Thomas are so lucky we get to see you guys all the time.

  4. hahaha, Julie G is really funny! If I lived in Brazil I think we’d have the same kind of community with our friends & family. As it is, we mostly interact with my brother-in-law’s family.
    Anyway, my friend and blogger Aliki McElreath (who has an AS son)posted yesterday on her blog about something she did with L based on Parenthood. So last night I watched the episode she had linked to.
    After I watched I was wondering what other parents of Aspie kids thought of the show — thanks for the answer! #Great Timing!

  5. Lilian, I have Aliki’s blog in my GReader! Cool. I enjoy Parenthood, though I have an allergy to Dax Shepard and Lauren Graham, who both give me hives. It’s unfortunate when casting decisions interfere with my pleasure in a show.๐Ÿ˜‰
    Watching the Bravermans get together stresses me out, personally. I don’t get pleasure out of watching them all gather so damned much. It just reminds me what I’m missing.
    Did I mention that I saw Jason Katims speak at an Asperger’s convention? He was pretty good in the ways he talked about what they do on the show and why they do it that way. No, they don’t make it bad enough, because they have a lot of constraints. He wanted to do a story on IEP meetings, but his staff talked him out of it.๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Can I just step back from the deep reading s of society as viewed by Gabler and Brook and suggest that their cherry-picked TV show list is completely full of bunk?
    He cites a trend “beginning with Seinfeld”? The history of TV is practically nothing but large extended groups of friends or family sitting around having heartfelt conversations. Or have Mr. Gabler and Mr. Brooks never sat through a very special episode of Little House on the Prairie? Or hung out on the bridge with the lifetime singles of (any version of) Star Trek? Or the garage of lifetime singles on Taxi?
    And what about the show that Seinfeld replaced at 9 PM on NBC? (Remember? That place where everybody knew your name? I could have written the same article 30 years ago based just on the Cheers theme song.)
    Just because you can think of a half dozen examples from the last 10 years of television doesn’t mean you’ve spotted a trend.

  7. I think Ragtime is right about the lack of a trend, and, in fact, buried in the text there was a statement about how multiple people interactions are a staple of television (and, yeah, well, ‘that’s ’cause it would be really boring to watch a kafkaesque show that contained nothing but an internal monologue.)
    I have a whine about the beautiful houses in television families, because I think they can be faulted for the mortgage crisis and housing bubble and lack of savings rate and the credit crisis. People have a completely unreasonable expectation of how much you should be able to afford based on what you do and what you would be expected to earn. Both the younger families are single earners (and I have no idea what the “birth” family with the great yard for hosting family gatherings did, though there at least, you can attribute it to land and wealth acquired before the bubble).
    We too have a family network that resembles TV, but, it’s a conscious choice (as, I believe it is, for Laura). It limits geographic mobility and you pay a price in other ways (career, expense, schools, . . .). I’ve come to believe, for us, anyway, that it matters more for overall happiness (especially when you have kids) than almost any other choice with trade offs.

  8. I think a teen/adult with autism might be able to play the Max’s role (if he was cast as an older kid). I thought the use of an actor with Downs in Life Goes On was amazing, and worth the trouble it must have imposed. Of course I know the syndromes are different, but it’s all about accommodation in the end. You’d just have to film more of “Max” and include the bits that worked in the main story line. More of the story might have to be carried directly by other characters.
    The actor who portrays Max does a pretty good job depicting the “lighter” versions of autism that I experience personally, though. But, that doesn’t mesh with Max being unable to function in a mainstream classroom. Kind of like Boo not being able to talk (in Monsters, Inc.) doesn’t comport with her being potty trained.

  9. I think the family ensemble style isn’t unrealistic, at a somewhat lower or less secure socio-economic level, where families might have to double up because of foreclosure, job loss, etc.

  10. Yes, what Ragtime said, it’s hard to see a trend.
    But also, fiction generally presents the intensified moments in life, not the boring moments. This creates a bit of a problem in series television, because, on the one hand, moments of high drama (or comedy) are being portrayed but, on the other hand, the characters come back and do it again next week. It’s as if Odysseus came home and found the suitors, or Scarlett had to flee the burning of Atlanta, every week.
    I think my own real life is pretty typical: we get together with family members five or six times a year, have dinner with friends maybe about the same, go to a couple (non-business) cocktail parties, see people at bible study and church every week (that’s not shown on TV too much), etc. Obviously it’s not like “Seinfeld” or “Friends,” with friends stopping into our apartment every day after work.

  11. But the Friends (and the Big Bang nerd artifice) version is both based on a period of time, right (one that they then ignore as the characters age. There were folks in college, certainly, and then in graduate school, and first jobs who lived that way (friends dropping in every week, making friends with the people who live across the hall). I’d moved past that stage in graduate school/first job, but that’s because I was married.
    The extended family model in Parenthood (and Brothers and Sisters) is based on choice (and opportunity). People have to decide that they’re going to live in the same place (even when that’s New Jersey). Mind you, I’m spoiled since my family all moved to a place where most people wouldn’t mind moving, but it’s still required conscious effort on everyone’s part (and now, it makes it difficult for us to leave in ways we wouldn’t have understood when we were itinerants for 15 years. We have family we see every day, and family we see 10+ times/year, and family that we spend weeks with on vacation. We do not have friends who drop in on our house (and I wish we did), though I think having family actually replaces people.
    I’ve always imagined that church might function this way, but then I hear from folks that it isn’t as much socialization/community building as I imagine in an athiest. I’m not sure which view is the more correct one.

  12. “We do not have friends who drop in on our house (and I wish we did), though I think having family actually replaces people.”
    Family are people too! (Kidding.)
    “I’ve always imagined that church might function this way, but then I hear from folks that it isn’t as much socialization/community building as I imagine in an athiest.”
    Depends on the religious group and local culture.
    My feeling is that the size of my social circle would make bad TV. Rather than having a single tight group of people that I spend all my time with (which would be better TV), it’s a lot more diffuse and more mediated by technology. If it were a TV show, you’d be saying, “Who is that person?” and “She’s writing another email.” I talk to my parents and grandparents every day or other day on the phone, I talk to my sister when I can catch her, I talk to the Starbucks ladies almost every day, I talk to other parents on field trips and playdates, there are people that I email, there are the neighbors (I now do the neighborhood directory), there are the people after church (the boy who’s sweet on C and the speech delayed girl who collects pine cones with my kids), there are the graduate potlucks, there are my walking partners, there are my husbands’ colleagues, etc. There’s some overlap between these groups, but not total overlap, like you see on TV.

  13. Now that I think of it, there’s something in Putnam about the distinction (I forget the terminology) between strong social bonds and weak ones. The strong bonds are the kind of thing you might get in a village in Sicily where nobody trusts anybody outside their family, but they aren’t as helpful in creating a civic culture. Putnam says that the weak, casual bonds are actually very helpful in creating civic culture and for doing things like finding a job outside your neighborhood. (Anybody who has read Putnam more recently or more deeply than me, feel free to tidy that up.)

  14. “”We do not have friends who drop in on our house (and I wish we did), though I think having family actually replaces people.”
    Family are people too! (Kidding.) ”
    You haven’t met my family (ha ha).
    But, I am trying to say that family bonds that function as family do impair one’s willingness/need/ability to develop friendship bonds that function as family. Functioning as family means something deeper than casual social contact and interaction to me. It means that you’re watching out for each others’ interests and needs. I know people who have friends who are that kind of family for them, and I know people whose families aren’t. I think, though, that people need those contacts beyond their tax-paying unit of a family, and need in this instance really means something like “I don’t think human beings were meant to live this way” in the wishy-washy behavioral evolution sense.

  15. “Functioning as family means something deeper than casual social contact and interaction to me. It means that you’re watching out for each others’ interests and needs.”
    When I lived in Russia, I had that sort of relationship with my friends, both Russian and fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. We’d come and go and bring sweets and drink tea and go to the public bath (yes, I did go native, pretty much). Money was lent back and forth and there was a lot of informal, implicit exchange. That was on the background of a very low-trust society where the concept of “our people” and “not our people” (“nashi” and “chuzhie”) is really essential. There’s also the question of technology. I’d go and see my friends at their homes without making appointments, but almost none of us had a phone. It would be interesting to see whether that custom has survived the rise of the cell phone. Doug? Julie G?
    I haven’t had anything like that intensity of friendship since, but I also haven’t lived in any place where the struggle for survival was as ferocious, or where there was so little civil society. That said, I don’t think that “watching out for each others’ interests and needs” is a very high bar for friendship to meet. Anything below that is just acquaintance, in my opinion.
    Over the past few weeks, I’ve asked a neighbor with preschool girls if she needed a shiny purple princess dress (yes), I’ve asked an education-minded next door neighbor if she wants my extra copy of Katharine Beals’ “Raising a Left Brain Child” (yes), I’ve asked her if her husband knows about a college program that gives 20% of salary for attending a teaching seminar, and if my daughter’s teacher moves onto our street (which seems probable), I’ll add her and her family to the neighborhood directory and get her a copy. None of this stuff is very hard, but it does require thinking 1) what does X need? and 2) do I have something (either an object or information) that X needs? Of course, too much of this without some sensitivity, and you become a nuisance, but an excess of neighborliness is not the danger most threatening America today.

  16. I agree with bj that having a very close functioning family can impede your ability to develop these relationships with friends. We had very tight friend networks when I was growing up mostly because we only saw our family once a year and my mother worked very hard to cultivate these.
    I think one of the keys to developing closer networks is to ask your friends, even if you don’t know them that well, when you need help. I really think that most people want you to ask them.

  17. On that Brooks piece… Does the NYT even employ a fact checker? How does he still have a job when he very clearly is just making shit up?

  18. Well, Here is rather emphatically Not Russia, but everybody has a phone. I’m not fully versed in what age kids start to have phones (girls in my fencing group have them at 13-14) but adults all have phones. So much so that some of the current USAID programs are about using phones to bring bank-like infrastructure out to villages via mobile phone. The one- and two-lari notes are being taken out of circulation, but when they were around you could put as little as 50ยข on your pay-as-you-go phone, so even people with very little money can keep using phones. You can even do a certain amount of signaling using no money by calling and hanging up before the other person answers. They get a notice of the number that tried to call, and that can be enough to relay a message, even if it’s just “call me back because you have more money on your card.”
    Anyway, that’s a long way to say that the days of dropping by without calling are basically over. What you do now is call the other person and say “We’re coming,” or “We’re here.”

  19. You can even do a certain amount of signaling using no money by calling and hanging up before the other person answers.
    “A Mr. Uoweme Fifty is calling. Will you accept the charges?”

  20. C’mon, guys. If Max were a real Aspie the house would look like ours — various holes that said child had bashed in the wall in one of his rages, footprints on the furniture, doors that had to be taken off the hinges because the slamming JUST WOULDN”T STOP. Certain rooms with no pictures on the walls. EVerything above a certain height. Piles of things that no one else in the house was allowed to touch or move. And the mom would be overweight and stressed out.

  21. “house porn”?
    You’ve got a serious reality perspective issue that should be addressed by living in a 3rd world country for a while. Victorian Imperial views of ‘normal’ are eating your brain.
    Turn off the damned TV, people.

  22. Only slightly related: Profile of Ian Brennan, creator of Glee (wrote original script and also writes Sue’s one-liners) in the Times:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/arts/television/24brennan.html?_r=1
    Aspie or no?
    I love what his father says in the article: โ€œI just let him be himself,โ€ said his father, John Brennan, a former priest. โ€œI canโ€™t take any credit for his talent.โ€
    I like this because it reminds me what I want for my kids more than anything else: for them to be themselves.

  23. Ha! So cool that you got to listen to Jason Katims speak about the show! Well, based on what Aliki writes about IEP meetings, I’m sure it would be a very thorny situation to put in it. I’m glad you read her blog, I think she’s a lovely writer. we’re probably going to have a blogger meet up this coming November.๐Ÿ˜‰

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