A year after the US Supreme Court made interracial marriage legal in 1967, and seven months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, an explosive kiss between a white man and a Black woman made television history.
Although set 300 years in the future, the locked lips of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura spoke to a tension still yet to be reconciled today. Incredibly, it reportedly provoked little commentary at the time. You can only imagine what the reaction on Twitter might have been.
But the legacy of that moment remains: television as a force for good, with purpose, with impact — storytelling as magic, conjuring empathy, teleporting viewers into lives that they would never otherwise know so intimately, making us all that little bit more human.
Netflix isn’t just a cosy night in anymore. It can be our whole world, one that we haven’t seen properly in a while, reflected back to us in the most truthful terms, with all the wonderful and ugly bits lumped in together. And like most reflections — at least, when you haven’t had a haircut in four months — you might actually be a bit shocked by what’s staring back at you.
That intensity can change you, and change the world around you.
"TV is so important. I see it working a bit like a mirror,” Scott Bryan, a TV critic and broadcaster who has written for the New York Times, the Guardian, and more, about the power of television, told Global Citizen.
"The issues and problems we face are all reflected in programmes and storylines on television, but if television gives a platform to a much needed voice, or makes people think differently about a particular issue ... you see that change back in society too,” he said. “A great TV show can lead to awareness, fundraising, lobbying, and a commitment for change.”
Bryan added: “You see it on television all the time, from writers using a soap storyline to highlight an important and undervalued cause, to actors who try to reflect a particular issue, to journalists who report on a story that some viewers are experiencing.”
"If the least a TV show does is make someone feel validated and seen, we all benefit,” he said.
After a difficult day in a difficult month of news ... thank god for television.— Scott Bryan (@scottygb) January 22, 2021
Indeed, stories in art often do a better job of connecting to people than what we see in real life.
Compare Years and Years’ gut-wrenching portrayal of migrants attempting to cross the English Channel, versus the “voyeurism” of the BBC and Sky News coverage, framed like a reality show. Elsewhere, is there a more effective case for universal health care than in Breaking Bad, which without bank-breaking medical bills might have otherwise been a heartwarming tale of an affable schoolteacher reconnecting with his family after recovering from a cancer scare?
When TV successfully generates empathy, the impact can be transformational. Here’s how some of our favourite shows from the last few years have delivered real social change.
1. It’s a Sin
The best TV series to come out of Britain so far in 2021 broke all streaming records on Channel 4.
It’s a Sin, written by certified genius Russel T. Davies, follows a group of friends having the time of their lives in 1980s London. But as the HIV epidemic looms, the most perfect snapshots of joy on film are coloured with moments of utter devastation.
Millions fell in love with the show’s LGBTQ+ characters, especially the joyful but flawed Olly Alexander from Years and Years — the pop band that performed on Together At Home, not the TV show also penned by Davies — and as a result, those ripples of affection have evolved into tangible social change.
In the New York Times, Bryan wrote that the Terrence Higgins Trust, a UK-based HIV/AIDS charity, has seen phone calls to its helpline spike by 30%. Moreover, a t-shirt designed by London artist Philip Normal featuring a catchphrase from the show (“La!”) raised over £250,000 for the group, and was worn in parliament by Angela Rayner, the Labour Party’s deputy-leader.
And across the country, the show inspired a four-fold increase in HIV testing. Every episode of the show dropped four days before HIV Testing Week, and on Feb. 1, the Terrence Higgins Trust confirmed 8,200 at-home HIV test kits had been ordered, beating the previous record of 2,800 in a single day.
“I’m trying not to cry. It’s amazing to see a real-time response to the show,” Alexander told BBC Breakfast. “I’m really moved by it.”
"It's amazing to see real time response to the show"— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) February 5, 2021
Olly Alexander, who plays Ritchie in It's A Sin, tells #BBCBreakfast he's moved by the rise in HIV testing following the programme. https://t.co/NgD9vOrMeVpic.twitter.com/ZdzIzg7WsA
2. Blue Planet II
The most-watched TV series of 2017 was also one of its most impactful.
Sir David Attenborough’s documentary series about the natural world saw more than 14 million people tune into a single episode in the UK. Since its earnest plea for people to reduce plastic in the ocean, the UK has officially banned plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds, and doubled the compulsory charge for single-use plastic bags in supermarkets.
But even more impressive is how the show left its viewers so spellbound, that most viewers decided to immediately change their lives to tackle plastic waste.
Research from 2018 found that an unbelievable 88% of people who watched Blue Planet II went on to change their behaviour, especially on things like recycling and ocean plastic. Of these, half said they had “drastically changed” their behaviour, while half said they had “somewhat changed” it.
That meant that people were buying more loose vegetables to avoid plastic packaging, investing in reusable water bottles and coffee cups, and an 800% increase in customers asking supermarket staff questions about plastic pollution.
3. Love Island
Nobody knows exactly why, but everybody knows it’s true: the summer of 2018 was the greatest there has ever been. A cocktail of blue skies, Love Island, and England doing quite well in the football that left us all giddy with good vibes for months on end. There’s an argument to be made here that the communal uplift in national well-being is social change in itself.
In 2021, we’re at least guaranteed one of those three: it was announced on Thursday that for the first time in 18 months, Love Island was returning to ITV. Sadly, there is no identifiable metric that allows us to measure “vibes” as contributing to social change. But we don’t really need it.
The reality TV show might have a checkered record on misogyny, mental health, gender stereotypes, diversity, and possibly more. But if its primary reason for existence is as a celebrity factory, a production house that turns Instagram influencers into some of Britain’s most famous humans, there’s a strong case to be made that by virtue of those who emerge at the end of the process as a fully-formed celebrity, Love Island is normalising activism as part of online culture.
Take, for example, Camilla Thurlow: a former UN bomb disposal expert who came second in the 2017 iteration of the show. As soon as she left the island with her partner Jamie Jewitt, the pair started volunteering in Greece to support efforts tackling the refugee crisis. She’s since spent years as an advocate for Choose Love, the UK charity formerly known as Help Refugees.
Then there’s Dr. Alex George, who throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been working as an NHS doctor on A&E wards. His younger brother, Llŷr, passed away from suicide in July 2020 — and he’s dedicated his time to raising awareness and changing policy on mental health issues ever since. Now, he’s the UK government’s new youth mental health ambassador.
The list keeps going. You’ve got Amy Hart, who slammed British Airways for its treatment of workers during the pandemic, has been urging people to join trade unions, and wrote an op-ed in the Guardian urging the government to better support freelancers. There’s Yewande Biala, a former vaccine scientist who has repeatedly called out racism on social media — and Amber Gill, 2019’s winner who has been beating the drum for Black Lives Matter.
If a TV show can be measured by its stars, then Love Island has a lot going for it.
4. I May Destroy You
Over the last few years, there have been some beautiful breakthroughs in how periods are shown on TV. Compare a heaving Jonah Hill in Superbad, who can’t cope with a teensy weensy bit of period on his jeans, to The Queen's Gambit, which depicted blood dripping down Anya Taylor-Joy’s leg.
In a scene sure to provoke uneasy familiarity for those who have had to deal with period poverty, Taylor-Joy had to craft a sanitary pad from toilet paper instead. A 2020 study into young women in the UK from Plan International found that out of those who struggled to access period products, 54% used toilet paper as an alternative.
And in 2020, I May Destroy You rewrote the rules. Michaela Coel’s seminal show explored sophisticated tensions in themes ranging from consent and race, to reflections on climate change activism. She rarely offered judgements, instead posing difficult questions.
But one scene stood out: Coel is hooking up with her Italian sort-of-boyfriend, who pulls out her bloody tampon. He inspects a blood clot, with childlike curiosity. In an instant, the supposed power of such a moment is screwed up into a ball and strewn aside. The plot moves on.
Art matters. Like Star Trek in 1968, sometimes it’s just about being seen — offering due attention to experiences or people who are too often ostracised from the small screen.