The main purpose of TV, I would say, is to help us escape from our daily lives. I come home exhausted after hours of telling people what to do and taking credit for their work, so an outlet for escapism is much needed. So I started watching Law and Order and other shows that are known as “crime procedurals.” These shows tend to start with a dead body being discovered, or someone getting killed. Then, for an hour, a team of investigators and scientists work together to find the killer, usually succeeding by the end of the episode.

These shows are extremely addictive, which is why there are dozens of them, some with several variations: CSI, NCIS, Law and Order, Numb3rs, Bones, Criminal Minds, etc. They are well-written and well-acted, with interesting stories and good pacing. Besides those factors, though, there are two elements of these shows that make them compelling. First is the fact that we are all wired to be problem-solvers. We like puzzles. Each show is a jig-saw puzzle, and we get to go along on the ride as the professionals find the pieces and put everything together. Secondly, we are attracted to the sense of justice that the shows impart. At the end of each episode, usually the killer is caught, his motives are explained, and there is some sort of justice delivered.

I spent a lot of 2011 watching these shows. On New Year’s Eve, I caught a glimpse of an episode of Criminal Minds where children’s bodies were discovered, and at the end, they realized the killer was a kid who just enjoyed going around killing other kids. It made me sick. It made me even sicker to realize that I had not gotten sick earlier. This is horrible stuff and yet it was just another hour of entertainment and everyone could just get back to having dinner or whatever.

It is alarming there are so many of these shows out there. If TV is a necessary form of escapism, then what exactly are we escaping into? We escape the real world, where horrible things happen and we read about them, to TV world, where similarly awful things happen and we get to see the gory details. In “Bones,” for example, the bodies are displayed in all their mutilated, decomposing glory. They spend a lot of time on these fake cadavers. The results are so gruesome that in the past, I had to look away. Now, they barely bother me.

That’s the thing, these shows desensitize us to violence and murders, even as they make us feel reassured that there is justice at the end. I’m not saying they cause people to be more violent. I haven’t been inclined to go around killing people in creative ways that the shows depict. Apologists for crime procedurals might even say they have a role in providing an outlet, a vicarious sort of catharsis. But I’m sure watching this much violence and depravity day after day doesn’t really help things.

At the least, it doesn’t help me. So for 2012, I’m going to try not to watch any more of these shows. Escapism, healthy escapism, should nourish the mind and soul, or at the very least, be neutral. It should not force us to see, in brutal details, the ugliness of the world that we’re trying to escape from.

Of course, this is not to say that I am against the depiction of violence and murders. These last few months, I’ve discovered some great and very violent shows. “The Walking Dead” portrays a post-apocalyptic world where a disease has wiped out most of mankind. Survivors have to make tough choices as they face zombies, including killing each other to stay alive. “The Game of Thrones” depicts a medieval-like fantasy land where warring clans do not hesitate to behead one another. And “Battlestar Galactica,” a sci-fi also set in a post-apocalyptic world where intelligent robots look and behave like humans even as they try to destroy us. Lots of violence everywhere. But at the least, the characters change and grow, and there are moments of humanity and lessons that we can learn in these characters’ choices and actions.

Not that we actually learn anything from shows in general. However, I think good shows deeply explore the worst and the best in humans and in humanity, not just the worst.

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