Some good news for all the couch potatoes out there: a recent study has linked watching meaningful TV shows to being a more empathetic, generous and kind person.
In the study, conducted by Penn State University in the United States, 106 university students (mostly white) were tested for their emotional state and willingness to help others after watching two clips from the cancelled show Rescue Me.
One group (the control group) watched a funny clip in which protagonist Tommy, a firefighter in New York City, played pranks on his friends.
The other group watched a clip in which Tommy was going through a divorce and dealing with painful 9/11 flashbacks.
Afterwards, participants were made to fill out a questionnaire and were asked to help another researcher with a study – one researcher was young and white, the other older and black.
The second group, who watched the more serious clip, were more likely to help both researchers with their studies than the control group.
What does this tell us? That watching “meaningful” shows – shows that portray charity, generosity and self-sacrifice – can make you a better person.
These quality are summarised under one umbrella term, “moral beauty”.
“Previous research has shown that people tend to be more altruistic after they watch a movie or television program that they consider more meaningful,” said Erica Bailey, lead author of the study.
“But this study suggests that not only are they more altruistic, but they are more willing to offer help to people from different groups outside of their own.”
Of course, superficial sit-coms or highly violent dramas with a poor moral compass may not fall into this category. So what shows do exhibit “moral beauty”?
The shows that make a difference
A series of studies conducted at the University of Minnesota found the presence of gay characters on television screens can also reduce prejudice towards gay or lesbian people in real life.
“These attitude changes are not huge – they don’t change bigots into saints. But they can snowball,” said Edward Schiappa, a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the representation of different races and genders on the screen can also impact on the wellbeing of the audience.
A 2012 study in the journal Communication Research found television exposure predicted a decrease in self-esteem for girls.
“If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles. The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there,” co-researcher Nicole Martins explained at the time.
Happily, several shows have emerged since which tick most of the boxes in terms of representation and “moral beauty”.
While Modern Family is somewhat lacking on the racial diversity front, it has a number of prominent female characters. It has also been applauded for portraying a gay relationship between main characters Cameron Tucker and Mitchell Pritchett.
Each episode humorously explores issues of family, belonging, relationships, marriage and ageing.
Orange Is the New Black
Set in a female prison and centred on the lives of its inmates, OITNB is possibly the most racially diverse show on television. It also has a predominantly female cast – a rarity even in today’s forward-thinking age.
The show’s creators have been critically lauded for their honest, critical exploration of issues like homosexuality, racism, sexism and rape and sexual assault.
Warning: coarse language.
A show that’s been sweeping the awards season circuit this year, Jeffrey Tambor has been praised for his role as Mort, a father who decides after three children and a marriage to embrace his identity as a transgender woman.
The show has been applauded for “changing the conversation” about transgender people.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
This Netflix comedy follows Kimmy Schmidt, a woman who has spent her formative years in an underground, apocalypse-fearing cult.
Through the clever, satirical lens of Kimmy’s own innocence and cluelessness, the show explores many important conundrums posed by the perils of a modern lifestyle.
After 12 seasons, this medical drama is still continuing to excel in the representation and “moral beauty” stakes.
This is thanks in large part to its producer Shona Rhimes, who is a pioneer for women on television and colour-blind casting.