Lessons Learned from TV

Remember how television shows in the '80s always had a moral or a lesson to be learned at the end of each 30–minute debacle?

Though this format was rendered irrelevant outside of children's shows thanks to shows like Seinfeld, local author and Television Without Pity recapper Jeff Alexander is still deriving meaning and advice from the idiot box. His tongue-in-cheek book, A TV Guide to life: How I Learned Everything I Needed to Know from Watching Television, expounds on lessons to be applied to areas of life including love, college, careers, and child-rearing from such sage shows as Saved By the Bell, The X-Files, and NewsRadio.

CP: So, how much extra TV did you watch to write this book?

JA: Hardly any. The funny thing is, once I began writing the book I didn’t have as much time to watch TV, which is kind of ironic. I just pulled things together from my life experiences and my memories from a lifetime of TV.

CP: What are some of your favorite shows?

JA: I watch Battlestar Galactica. I enjoy the shows I recap and write on for Television Without Pity. I like Big Love, and I enjoy 24 for what it is. The Office, and The Daily Show too.

CP: Obviously, your book is intended to be humorous. But are there any genuine lessons you have learned from watching TV?

JA: Well, when I started watching Family Ties in the '80s, I know I began fighting with my family less. The show stressed understanding where people are coming from, and seeing things from the other peoples' points of view. That view has kind of helped me with my interpersonal relationships throughout life. Also, I really learned how to read through TV with shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. I've got a three-year-old now, and he watches educational stuff.

CP: Can we still learn from TV even though shows no longer have clear-cut lessons like shows from the '80s used to have?

JA: I think so. You know, young people come into the world, and have to learn from TV using what's on now. Young audiences are more sophisticated, and so is television. I don't imagine that a lot of people nowadays have patience for preaching or obvious lessons or morality. A lot of shows on in the '70s and '80s would be shot down now or writers would have to retool things a lot.

CP: Any lessons that you came across again and again that were straight up bad or unrealistic?

JA: I try to call out patterns in my book. Like, in television, people pull each other aside for a private conversation, and they’re five feet away from the person they’re talking about. That’s the kind of thing that the book hinges on. If you follow the rules of TV too closely you might embarrass yourself, though it’s funny to think about.

CP: What about lessons or topics that are missing from TV? What would a show look like that covered those new issues?

JA: I’ve never really thought about that. I would say that TV has started to fill in more gaps than it used to. There never used to be shows about boring daytime jobs, but now we have The Office and Chuck, and other shows where people are stuck in jobs that aren’t fulfilling for them, yet they still find meaning.

CP: What about reality shows, where do they fit in with this equation?

JA: That may be a subject for the next book. I didn’t really touch on reality shows in this one. Partly, because it is difficult to draw lessons from reality TV; a lot of contestants are divorced from reality themselves. And frankly, I don’t watch them as much.

CP: I've read that Madonna doesn't allow her kids to watch television. Is she putting them at educational risk?

JA: Well, we limit our own son's television intake. I admire people who keep their kids away from TV. You can't let TV raise your kids, even though I joke about it. You have to keep up with what kids are watching. I know way more about The Wonder Pets than any adult ever should.

Jeff Alexander discusses the world of television and the lessons and themes learned 7 p.m. Thursday night at Barnes & Noble (2100 Snelling Ave. N, St. Paul).

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