George Gerbner, the well-known critic of television programming, famously called what we watch on commercial channels on TV the “toxic by-product” of our culture and economy. According to Kang, Andersen and Pfau, too much TV may be especially “toxic” for some young viewers. Frequent viewing can shape how naïve children think about life, and by extension, about those around them who hope to mentor them, including, of course, their teachers.
TV character Molly Flynn-Biggs, the fourth-grade teacher brilliantly portrayed by Melissa McCarthy on “Mike & Molly” on CBS, generally behaves reasonably in the classroom, and occasionally shows sensitivity at home, despite her dysfunctional family. For example, she eventually softens toward a former student who shows up unannounced at her front door with a “Christmas gift,” when Molly is feeling low. Indeed, we peg Molly as emotionally mature and believable mentor at many critical moments...at least through season 3.
But in a video segment from the first show of the upcoming season 4 featured on the “Sneak Peak” on the Morning Sun site, Molly reveals her true feelings about her profession. Teaching is, so to speak, thrown under the wheels of the school bus, when Molly tells us she will quit her teaching job to “pursue her true dream.” Worse, Molly confesses to her sis and mom that she, Molly, thinks teaching was just a “front”, and she was just a “phony.”
It is not difficult to imagine how a fourth grader who quietly idolizes dynamic, mothering teachers, as Molly is often portrayed on the show, might be disillusioned, but then it’s not long before another exemplar shows up on TV; for example Harold Finch, who can save the day without jeopardizing the ratings.
Michael Emerson, as Harold Finch in a recent “Person of Interest,” the popular series on CBS, assumes in one instance the role of just such a believable good guy, a substitute teacher who strays from the lesson plan to lend moral support to a teen computer savant. To do so, the character chooses Pi (3.14...), that familiar constant for calculating circumferences, to serve as a metaphor for the “infinite” possibilities that lie ahead for the youthful students in his class. It’s a great scene for the mellifluous-voiced Emerson, and for all the disenchanted, teen brainiacs who may be thinking about skipping classes taught by uninspiring teachers.
Gerbner authored many a convincing indictment of TV, but upbeat and believable telecasts remain to convince us that observant kids of all ages can find inspirational lessons taught by enthusiastic teachers, whether by Steve, the patient host of many a “Blues Clues,” or even by talented and thoughtful kids themselves.
A shining example of such inspired and moving education-by-kid stands out among the ranks of reality TV -- FOX channel’s “MasterChef Junior,” on which four young chefs, each with stellar talent, boundless energy and infectious charisma, recently showed their peers not only how to cook like adult pros, but how to enjoy the thrill of competition, share the compassion that drives camaraderie, and accept gracefully even the agony of defeat.
The mean world Gerbner feared TV presents to the detriment of children may still be a threat, but when we can turn on our sets and find inspired programming that entertains while it teaches, let’s just watch it with our kids, so the ratings go up, and we get more fine programs.