New book looks at ethics through the TV screen

Professor of Religious and Ethical Studies Steven A. Benko is the editor of a recently published book that explores ethical concepts through popular television shows.

Better to live through television: modern television and moral identity formation addresses the moral meanings that audiences can take from TV shows from the last 20 years. The book contains essays regarding The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Justified, Lucifer, Hannibal, and other.

In his research and teaching, Benko is most interested in exploring moral identity formation, and he sees television storytelling as a place for identity formation.A black and white book cover by

“Becoming a person is the same as becoming a person with moral preferences and a sense of right and wrong, of good and evil,” Benko said. “Television tells stories about who we are. Television is a place where cultural conversations take place. From questions about gender, race, friendship, romance, marriage, family dynamics, employment, law, police, health – everything – television is a place, where important national and cultural conversations unfold.If you put it together: television tells stories that help audiences understand who they are, and these stories are relevant to what is happening right now, television becomes a natural place to think ethics. ”

Benko is proud of the range of programs included in the book, and he hopes readers can see that there is “serious intention on the part of the writers, directors and actors to create meaningful art.” The shows range from award-winning dramas to more escapist shows based on comics and graphic novels.

“When you talk about The thread and The sopranos, you’re talking about the best TV shows ever produced. There is no doubt that it is high art that is capable of evoking serious moral reflection and debate, “Benko said.” But there are essays about The unicorn, Luciferand The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and what these essays show is that there are just as many efforts to create a meaningful and moral universe in these shows. The question that each of the essays asks, some implicitly, some explicitly, is, why does it matter to watch one program or several programs? “

Collaborate with Meredith Community members
The book includes several collaborations with Meredith College faculty and alumni. He co-authored a chapter on moral decency in the television show The unicorn with Ellie Jones, ’20. Benko and Alisa Johnson, Associate Professor of English and Assistant Dean, Arts & Humanities, are the authors of the final chapter of the book, “A Black Captain America: Race in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier“, an analysis of race and representation in the latest Disney + series. The book’s cover was designed by Bailey Birtchet, ’21.

Benko has much praise for its Meredith partners.

“Alisa Johnson and I have been colleagues for years, but I did not know how passionate she was about comics and these characters,” Benko said. “Writing with her was a way to get to know her better, and it was a lot of fun. It is an honor for the collaborative culture that Meredith promotes these conversations so that such opportunities are possible and can become a reality. ”

The contributions of alumni Birtchet and Jones were strengthened through their previous experiences in the undergraduate research program.

“Bailey Birtchet designed an ingenious cover that evokes how television – in this case in the form of the remote control – shapes and organizes our lives. Ellie Jones and I collaborated on an article regarding [his previous book] The ethics of comedy and also for this book. It is extremely gratifying to see her grow from a student in my classes to a conversation partner, researcher, and co-writer. She is someone who has benefited from the undergraduate research program, just like Bailey. All the extra work they did during the summers and several semesters gave them the skills to take on projects that allowed them to differentiate themselves from their peers. “

What matters in the show matters to the audience
Benko said the book’s content provides the argument that “there is a synchronicity between what matters on these shows and what matters to the audience.” Because of this context, TV choices allow for critical thinking.

“The show becomes a script for what matters to the audience, offering strategies to negotiate the world so that one can access and enjoy what matters to them. What I hope is that people will think more critical of why they are investing in a particular show or character and putting it in relation to what matters to them and then thinking about how it came to mean something, why it matters, and what steps they take to access what matters to them. Audiences invest a lot of time and emotion in TV shows; I hope this book explains why they do and what they get out of it. “

Better to live through television is Benko’s third edited book to follow The good place and philosophy and The ethics of comedy.

Learn more about Better to live through televisionpublished by Rowman & Littlefield.

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