Television sensitivity in the age of constant crisis

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Over the years, television has had to learn to adapt to real-life tragedy PsyCat Games

How can the media be sensitive to all that’s going on in the world?

Only 16 days after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City thrust the world—specifically the United States—into a period of mourning and panic, the television sitcom Friends was to premiere the first episode of their eighth season. 

(Note: it’s been 19 years since this premiered. Yes, I’m about to discuss spoilers.)

The episode was supposed to be a heartfelt, escapist break during a terrifying and uncertain time for the country. The story centered around the wedding of characters Monica Geller and Chandler Bing. In addition, the episode revealed that the character Rachel Greene was going to move forward with the pregnancy that had been revealed in the previous season.

This episode had always been intended to be sweet and hopeful, but when they realized it would be released shortly after one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in human history, the creators dedicated it to “The People of New York City”.

The show’s creators had decided at the time that they “didn’t want to do ‘a very special episode’ of Friends where they’re all distressed about what happened”. 

According to the show’s executive producer and occasional director Kevin S. Bright: “We felt we were comfort food, and during this time, if anything, we should be funnier than we’ve ever been.”

But they certainly didn’t ignore the real world. The season’s third episode subplot revolving Monica and Chandler’s honeymoon was re-written, and various whiteboard gags in Joey and Rachel’s apartment noted their love for NYC and thanked the city’s first responders.

I bring this up because as we enter the fall season — when television programs enter new seasons and return to streaming services and/or television — I can’t help but look back and wonder how 2020 is going to adapt.

Of course, Friends is not the only example of a television show being altered due to traumatic real-world events. In 2014, Doctor Who removed a beheading scene after American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded by members of ISIS with the footage being distributed online.

BBC, the network that airs Doctor Who, stated at the time that the edits were made “in light of recent news events” and were made “out of respect”.

Now, all of these situations are extremely different. The 2001 attacks on New York, the beheading of journalists and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are very different world events that have been tragic and painful on very different levels. However, in August, the American medical drama New Amsterdam faced a similar dilemma when they were gearing up to release an episode on a viral outbreak.

The episode, originally titled “Pandemic”, was shelved by showrunner David Schulne, who believed it was not an appropriate time for the episode’s release — they only showed a selection of scenes from that episode which were necessary to introduce a new character. It was later also revealed that a writer and three crew members were sick, and that recurring guest actor Daniel Dae Kim had tested positive for COVID-19.

The dilemma – of shows being altered due to traumatic world events – is nothing new. What will be new, however, is how we adapt to it in our modern world; a world that seems to be filled with destruction, and disaster, and heartbreak at every turn. How can we make our media respectful of crises when we can’t seem to escape them? When everything that could go wrong in a year does go wrong, how can you make entertainment sensitive and aware of all of it?

In truth, my opinion is fairly bland. I believe that exactly what New Amsterdam, Doctor Who, and Friends showrunners did was the best case scenario, both in their respective times and now. A sad reality of life is that we will always be subject to pain and destruction. What shapes us as people is how we handle and move forward from these events.

Coming away from traumatizing events with the belief of “we will acknowledge it, we will be respectful of potential triggers, but we will continue to bring you the joy you need” is the best stance. We cannot avoid the destruction that goes on in our world. We can’t turn on our televisions or phones as a means of constantly avoiding reality. Eventually, we need to face it. But we don’t need to face it everywhere.

These shows capture the perfect balance; they are able to address what is going on in the world, acknowledge that it is causing people pain, but continue to provide the content they always have as a means of providing joy. It doesn’t ignore the traumas but moves forward with them.

In a strange way, this is a means of coping for all of us. It’s the equivalent of the TV producers saying: “Hey, the world is really scary right now. We know. So for 20 minutes or 40, just watch this silly thing. We’ll all still be here to work through this afterwards.”

That is what the world needs now more than ever:; a unified hug and the ability to, little by little, move forward together.

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