You and I are, essentially, everyone we see on cable TV.
That is to say that the characters we see on TV reflect part of us (or who we want to be) in some way, shape, or form. We’re Jack Bauer from “24” being the macho hero and kicking terrorist ass. We’re Rory Gilmore from “Gilmore Girls” trying to figure out life and love. We’re Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones” and Fran Lovett in “Happily Divorced” and Jay Pritchett in “Modern Family.” We’re even Liz Lemon from “30 Rock” on a Sunday afternoon eating ice cream on the couch.
Our connection to the characters we see on TV often affects our acceptance of a show, and can impact not only how well we like the show but also how well the show performs over time.
It’s a simple idea: one root of a happy TV experience is that we want to see ourselves acting out scenarios that aren’t entirely possible in our real life. When Sookie Stackhouse from “True Blood” has to cope with telepathic powers, new love, and loads of vampires, we put ourselves into her seat and often imagine what we would do if we were her. When Spongebob has to decide between which friend he’ll spend time with after work, we’re reminded of similar situations in our own lives.
As children we convey this connection in more imaginative ways than our adult-selves.
For most of us, when we were younger, we would see super heroes or detectives or even gameshow contestants on TV and then we would turn off the TV and pretend like we were part of the adventure or mystery or gameshow. The longing of connecting with those we watch on the screen stays with us as we grow older, though, as adults, we don’t act out and use our imaginations to pursue the dream of being involved in the stories we see on TV as much as when we were younger.
So, part of us wants to be the person we see on TV, and we often find ourselves strangely drawn to shows whose characters are going through trials and struggling with issues similar to our own.
We look to the characters on TV not only to escape from our real lives, we look to the characters for guidance and insights into our lives as well.
When the tough hero or savvy heroine does something remarkable we feel like we were there, or that we could do something just as grand in our own lives. We feel inspired.
It’s this fundamental level of connectivity that makes many of the top shows successful.
Shows that don’t allow for the viewers to connect with characters on an entirely personal level – shows like “Sh*t My Dad Says” and “Lone Star” for example – are likely to fail, and regularly do. It’s not hard to see why: nobody wants to be the asshole old guy (even though we want to hear what he has to say).
If you and I can’t connect to characters we see on the screen, we’re less inclined to watch it.
Granted, there are situations where a show with characters that are entirely uncommon than ourselves can still be successful. If a show has a plot that is immediately – and unquestionably – interesting, a story that captures our attention right off the bat (and holds it through an entire season or more) then we’ll tune-in and stay watching as long as the plot is interesting enough.
There are other factors to the success of a show as well. A great, talented cast can spur many people to watch (especially if the cast includes A-list celebrities who are well-known for their previous roles). Additionally, a straightforward entertaining purpose can make a show shine (ABC’s “Wipeout” comes to mind).
But the shows that have people and characters which the viewers can connect to, relate to, or be inspired by are the shows that make the record books. “Home Makeover” makes us want to help others or pray that we’re the ones picked for the next home makeover. “American Idol” shows that we can reach our dreams. The characters from “LOST” show us the value of love and purpose and morality. The Army group in the 70s hit show “M*A*S*H” show us a myriad of ways to be creative, to see past the negatives, to be hopeful.
In order for a show on TV to be really successful it has to create a level of personal connection with the viewers (you and I) otherwise it will be a hard battle to get enough people tuning-in regularly.
When it comes to great TV, you and I are the stars. We just wear different skin.