What's so great about television, anyway?

Even though "Glee" is a drama, and "Dancing with the Stars" a reality show, they are the same, even as they are different--and there are similar explanations for the continued popularity of both programs.

While the characters on "Glee" and the performers on "Dancing with the Stars" are entertaining--and who doesn't get a kick out of Mr. Schuster and Sue Sylvester playing big dog little dog; who hasn't noticed real life judges, contestants, and choreographers snarling at one another--these mini-dramas do not fully explain why so many viewers continue to tune in.

Sure "Dancing with the Stars," has lively music and exciting twists and turns, with or without scripts ("She passed out on stage!" "He makes music with his dance partner!").  Throw professional writers and scripts into the mix, with "Glee," and you wind up with another kind of excitement: serious social issues. Bullies? Check. Teen pregnancies? Check. Gay youths coming out to family members? The show has been there and done that too. All of this makes for serious weekly drama--but still does not fully explain why millions of people continue to tune in to both shows week after week.

Watching "Glee," "Dancing with the Stars," and other television programs transports us; we wind up in a universe in which all problems can be measured and addressed--and many solutions even achieved--through song and dance. The shows provide an escape from our anxious day to day sensibilities and our high stress lives and problems.

Adults need opportunities to escape, to be sure. As one prominent psychoanalyst, Dr. Glen Gabbard, observes in his book The Psychology of The Sopranos (2002, Basic Books), opportunities to fantasize, step out of reality, play, and imagine are important--and not just for kids. Elaborating on Dr. D.W. Winnicott, who wrote extensively about creativity and child development, Dr. Gabbard, describes how movies, TV shows, and literature provide what psychoanalysts call a "transitional" or "play space," a vehicle through which adults can engage in much needed opportunities for play, imagination, and fantasizing. Play allows adults to enrich their day to day experiences.

And this notion of transitional space, an important one in child development, also explains something about adult mental functioning. A child that sucks her thumb or clutches her teddy bear creates a transitional world that is mother, but not mother, and enters a realm that is me, not me. In so doing, that child is enabled and empowered over time to know that a safe, reliable, consistent image of mother and self are inside that child's head and heart. And the presence of internalized experiences and images of both caregiver and self allow such a child to feel more secure in her own skin, leaving her free to explore the world outside--and causing opportunities for creativity and development to open up and multiply.

Likewise, the adult who turns on the TV, enters into a transitional space of me, not me, and can begin to use the extension of reality offered by TV as a sort of mental space in which to create, imagine and play, in much the same way children use their environments to learn and explore.  Watching "Glee" and "Dancing with the Stars" allows adults to play--even for just minutes at a time. Both are actually shows about watching, looking, and listening. The costumes are pretty, the performers look young and energetic--all in all such hours spent in front of the TV transport the viewer; we re-experience the past or imagine the future-or contemplate a pretend idealized future--and we get to know ourselves and our desires a little bit better.

And when a real live actor who is frustrated because he or she has not worked for years, dances his or her way back to the A-list just by joining the cast of "Dancing with the Stars," all prior career problems are solved--at least for the moment. Likewise, when a fictional TV teen suffers the slings and arrows of high school fortune, then quickly sings her way to a resolution, equanimity is restored. Just like that.

Isn't TV great?

About the Author

Stephanie Newman, Ph.D.

Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, as well as the author of Mad Men on the Couch.

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