Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: Perceptions of reality

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Chris Philpott has been thinking about the disconnect between television drama and the reality of a situation.
Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in 'Masters of Sex'.
Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in 'Masters of Sex'.

Earlier this week, I spent the better part of two days in the maternity ward and delivery suite of our local hospital, giddily awaiting the arrival of my second daughter - and I can report that the activities of the staff, and the staff themselves, are nothing like I'd been led to expect by maternity hospital-set drama Masters Of Sex.

I know what you're thinking. I was shocked too.

Okay, I wasn't really shocked. I wasn't even mildly surprised when our obstetrician turned out to be nothing like the abrasive Dr William Masters, nor when his assistant was far less melodramatic than his foil Virginia Johnson. I didn't bat an eyelid when I found the birthing suite wasn't stocked with antiquated machines, one of which looked suspiciously like a baseball bat with a camera attached. And I didn't see a single sign posted for a secret sex study. Not one.

It did get me thinking, though, about the disconnect between television drama and the reality of a situation. Not only was the maternity ward completely unlike Masters Of Sex, but there was no real comparison - other than field of work - to be made between our hospital experience and any major medical drama, from ER to Grey's Anatomy to Shortland Street.

Yet, we allow our expectations - our view of reality - to be directed by what we see on television.

I wasn't really surprised by anything that has happened over those couple of days. But the reverse of that sentence is also true: I wouldn't really have been surprised if our hospital visit was exactly like something I'd seen on Masters Of Sex or Grey's Anatomy. It would have seemed normal for one of the staff to resemble a TK or a Vinnie.

Television dramas try to have a high degree of modality - a measure of how real we perceive a representation of something to be. As a result, we can sometimes consider them a real representation of a given situation, especially if we're unfamiliar with the situation portrayed.

Many viewers probably think working in television news is pretty much as shown on Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom. Ask people who work in television news, and they'd probably laugh in your face.

Police work is especially susceptible to this. A show like Southland is presented as a realistic portrayal of police work in Los Angeles - and, if you doubt that, think about how it compares to an actual reality show like Police Ten 7. Heck, media analysts note a "CSI effect": due to the rise of forensic analysis shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, jurors in major cases now expect blood analysis, DNA breakdowns and so on.

In short, fictional television has changed how we perceive reality.

The same can be said of entirely fictional situations that are explored on television. The Walking Dead tries to portray surviving a zombie apocalypse as realistically as it can, and in return we start to believe that's what it might be like if a zombie apocalypse actually occurred. If one were to chop off a head and put it on a spike outside the gate to King's Landing, I'd imagine it would be a lot like how it appeared on Game Of Thrones.

I'm sure there are aspects of our hospital visit this week that are reminiscent of a show like Masters Of Sex. But without the dramatic intensity and broad characters of a television drama, it all feels completely different to what you expect.

In a way, it's actually kind of sad that we let television have this effect on us, on our perception of the world around us. Masters Of Sex isn't real, yet it clouded my view of what would transpire as we entered the maternity ward of our local hospital. And the result is that none of the hospital experience feels real.

As much as I love television, part of me hates that it has this effect. We can't control our expectations, but we can control our experience of reality. The indisputable truth is that the only real thing to come out of our hospital stay is my beautiful daughter, the love and bond that we share, the precious moment when she was handed to me.

Masters Of Sex will disappear off the schedule eventually. My experience will live on.

* What impact does television have on your expectations and perceptions of the world?

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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