Sometimes I feel like I’ve watched so much TV in my life that I’ve done irreparable damage, to my DNA, like I’ve corrupted the very core of who I am, or who I would have been had I not spent so much time in front of the television. One particular way in which I can measure how my soul has been diminished is my reaction to real life tragedy. TV, especially the reruns that I grew up with, has desensitized me. I’m incapable of feeling any sincere amount of empathy when horrible things happen to those around me.
Right before my grandfather died, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration, fated to slowly going blind, unable to see the world in which he was soon no longer to be a part of. Everybody took the news really hard. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins got together, to be close, to mourn the closing of a chapter in our family’s history. People put on a brave face, but there was definitely an underlying sorrow, thinking about my once active grandfather, now no longer able to drive anywhere, soon he wouldn’t be able see anything at all.
And all I could think of was, well, the Fonz went blind on an episode of Happy Days. I forget the specifics, but I think something happened where Potsy smacked Fonzie in the head with a frying pan, and for the rest of the episode, he couldn’t see a thing. Doctors told Mr. Fonzerelli that, unfortunately, the damage was permanent, that he’d just have to get used to being blind, for the rest of his life. The word forever was tossed around at least five times.
Everybody tried to act upbeat while the Fonz wallowed in self-loathing. He tried showing up at that burger joint hoping everything would be the same, until he went over to where he thought the jukebox was, to try that trick where he’d save a quarter by hitting the machine and it would just start playing. But he was blind, so he accidentally hit Ralph in the stomach. Things got quiet before Ralph tried to break the awkward silence by making some jukebox sound effects.
But the Fonz was pissed. Everything wasn’t the same. His life as he knew it was over. Or was it? It wasn’t. It turns out that the doctor was reading somebody else’s test results, that Fonzie’s blindness would only be temporary. I wonder how the other patient reacted to the doctor’s mix-up, “I’m sorry sir, I know I told you that you’d be back to normal in no time, but it turns out I made a mistake. You’ll be blind forever.”
What, were they really going to make the Fonz blind in every subsequent episode of Happy Days? No, the Fonz was blind, for a minute, he dealt with it, or didn’t deal with it, but it doesn’t matter, because stuff like that never really happens on TV anyway. And I watched tons of crap like this growing up. So I couldn’t help not feeling bad for my grandfather, because even though everybody kept stressing that macular degeneration was incurable, I just kept waiting for that doctor to show up, “Sorry for the misunderstanding, folks,” my grandfather would be like, “Hey Doc. No problem. Aaaay.”
It’s like my grandmother. She spent a good chunk of her life in a wheelchair thanks to multiple sclerosis. Again, that’s a really serious condition, and I’m sure it was the cause of a significant amount of pain and suffering. But as hard as I tried to face my grandmother’s reality, I could never shake that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Lieutenant Worf got crushed by a giant shipping container in Cargo Bay Two.
An accident like that would have killed a mere human, but Worf’s a Klingon, and Klingons are tough, so he survived. But he didn’t make it out totally unscathed: his spine looked more like a jigsaw puzzle now, and he was left a quadriplegic. The honor bound security chief was devastated. His life as he knew it was gone forever. What of his duties on the Enterprise? Over.
The Klingon code of honor didn’t help much either. Apparently disabled Klingons are expected to commit ritualistic suicide. Only Worf couldn’t move his hands, so he asked Commander Riker to do it for him. But do the twenty-forth century ethics of the United Federation of Planets allow for assisted suicide? And what of Worf’s young son Alexander? So many hard questions. So much irreversible loss.
Luckily, right after Worf chose to stick it out, to give life a chance, Doctor Crusher heard of this brand new experimental Klingon spine restoring operation. It had never been tried out before, but it just might work. What followed was a pretty suspenseful five-minute surgery scene and, guess what? It worked. Worf was back to normal. Was it too much to expect something like this in real life? Why couldn’t doctors come up with an experimental MS procedure for my grandmother? Why are you doing this to me, TV?
Do television shows think they’re teaching audiences a lesson by having their characters overcome impossible situations? Are we supposed to learn from their experiences dealing very briefly with chronic disease and permanent disability? No, we’re all getting ruined, our ability to cope with trauma eroded by cheap writing and loose plot holes.
Charles in Charge gets hit in the head and instead of suffering brain damage turns into a badass biker named Chaz. Michelle Tanner comes down with amnesia, but don’t worry, Uncle Jessie and the gang help jog her memory with a best-of Full House video montage. This is the fantasy world in which our generation grew up, where all tumors wind up being benign, and where all cancer scares are inevitably the mistaken results of some radiologist made at the beginning of the episode. Thanks a lot TV.