Why We Love Watching TV Characters Engage With Pop Culture

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The Jennings and Beemans gather round to watch The Day After on The Americans. FX

On last night’s episode of The Americans, people gather around their televisions to watch The Day After, a made-for-TV movie watched by more than 100 million people when it first aired, in 1983. The Americans gets a lot done with this sequence — the images of destruction bolster Philip’s doubts about giving his country access to new biological weapons, but they galvanize Elizabeth into action even when she emotionally struggles with the mission. Paige and Philip have an entire horrible conversation about the end of the world and whether the Jenningses’ work actually does anything to mitigate that possibility. The movie brings everyone’s fears for the future into apocalyptically sharp focus.

It’s a striking scene. The movie plays out a hypothetical future for everyone on the series, acting less as a science fiction than a fable. The Jennings shoot each other meaningful glances as John Cullum, out of character, explains in somber tones that this material will not be appropriate for young children. After the movie ends, Arkady tells Tatiana about an incident a month before, when the Russians came frighteningly close to launching a nuclear bomb in mistaken retaliation. For everyone, this cultural touchstone makes literal one of the show’s persistent unspoken fixations — the thrumming, ever-present tension of a looming nuclear threat.

It’s also a quintessentially TV moment. It’s not that film and other mediums don’t embed culture into their DNA. But the sheer bulk and sprawl of a TV series allows for a much more expansive embrace of the culture it’s portraying. If a film is, by necessity, a single, painstakingly calibrated machine designed to do one specific task, TV has the space and the formal infrastructure to be flexible. It can give over an entire subplot to Elaine trying to write a Murphy Brown treatment; it can spare a few seconds out of its tightly wound final episodes to make a joke about Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium; and it can designate a glorious, loving minute and a half to watch Bill Haverchuck come home from school, make himself a grilled cheese sandwich, and laugh at Garry Shandling.

TV, in other words, has the time to weave itself into the culture it’s a part of, and its characters can be participants in their cultural worlds in the same way we are as we watch them. Mad Men is surely the most thorough and well-explored example of this kind of pop-culture interaction. Don’s fondness for art-house films, coverage of the Ali/Liston fight, Bye Bye Birdie, Paul Kinsey’s Star Trek script — there are too many Mad Men examples of pop-cultural intersection to begin to name them all. Mad Men's creator, Matthew Weiner, has been explicit about the show's use of its cultural context, explaining that “all of these things are used for thematic purposes in the story,” and it’s clear that this is happening in The Americans as well. Moments of pop culture on television can act like x-rays, letting us look past the superficial features of the show so we can see the skeletal thematics underneath. 

Thematic uses of pop culture are most pronounced on shows like Mad Men or The Americans, where the series takes place in a familiar historical period. For these shows, culture has already become historical record, and so we can watch characters growing alongside a well-known and foreseeable path of pop-cultural milestones. Even more important for the long-running span of a television show, culture becomes a way to show time passing, like stretching out a measuring tape to see how much we’ve grown. We know years roll along on Men Men because we watch costumes and hairstyles change, but also because we watch Don sit down with Tomorrow Never Knows, and see him trying to shift his perspective into a whole new cultural framework. We watch Peggy get ready for a Dylan concert, and it is as clear a cultural foreshadowing of what’s to come as if she’d turned to the camera and said, “Gee, it feels like the times are a changin’.”

The measuring-tape model doesn’t necessarily apply to a show like Gilmore Girls, for example, which hoards cultural touchstones like so many collectible Charlie’s Angels plates. On that series, the incessant pattering deluge of pop-culture references (Grey Gardens, The Donna Reed Show, Pippi Longstocking, The Yearling, Paul Anka) becomes a shared language that builds a wall around Rory and Lorelai, defining their insular world as it inevitably shuts everyone else out. For Rory and Lorelai, pop culture is a way of expressing intimacy and connection, probably one of the most common uses of pop culture references on TV (and in life). It can act as a shorthand for building characters and looking for audience buy-in — even if you don’t know much about Leonard and Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, for instance, some of your first clues about who they are will probably come by way of understanding what they like. Their T-shirts are emblazoned with pop-culture jokes and references; if you recognize one, it’s as though the show sent up a visual flare that says, “these are your people.”

And because television can be such an extensive, all-seeing mirror of the world it depicts, perhaps the most curious and telling examples are those series where little to no culture seems to exist. The fact that no major character on 24 has a favorite movie or takes a moment to sit down and read a comic book is indicative of a fictional world invested in urgency and wholly concerned with plot — who has time for pop culture when the world is constantly ending? By the same token, there is no more effective way to drain a series of its humanity than for its characters to exist in a cultural vacuum. The Girlfriend Experience, Starz’s cold-as-ice depiction of the life of a high-class call girl, obstinately refuses us all access to its protagonist’s inner life. There may be no better way to express that than to note that I have absolutely no idea what her favorite television show is.

Pop culture works so well in fiction because it’s designed to create emotional responses — in us and in the characters. It is a flag of recognition, or of foreboding; it is a yardstick for the passage of time or an excavation of hidden themes. It can also be a self-congratulatory pat on the back at how great it is to have made something that brings joy to an audience (think of Sports Night’s Dana extolling the virtues of the Broadway musical.)

But pop culture works so well on TV in particular because one of the biggest strengths of the medium is just how much time we get to spend with its characters. They, like us, have the opportunity to see and respond to the culture in which they live — not just once, but often many times over the course of a series. Tony Soprano can sit and meditate over his Gary Cooper–inflected ideas of masculinity, and the Sex and the City women can dissect The Way We Were, and on Jane the Virgin Jane and Michael can sit and reconnect by catching up on Scandal. And on The Americans, where Elizabeth once deftly distracted her kids by offering to take them to see an Indiana Jones movie, we now watch the family together in front of the TV, watching the world explode. It’s a scene that works because of all of its thematic resonances, but maybe the most moving thing about it is the stuff that happens outside of the screen. When we see the Jenningses all sit together in a room, watching the same TV movie, it is as poignant and intimate as anything else The Americans has done. Even if we don’t recognize what they’re watching, the act of them watching it — of watching them consuming culture — is instantly familiar, and pleasurable, and personal. Watching good television is one of the best pleasures in life, but if there’s anything better, it might be watching a character you love love a thing he’s watching.