[This essay is also worth a read: http://martinweigel.org/2013/08/19/the-cultivation-of-empathy-why-we-need-fiction/]
As for your students, a couple of things. One, your particular school. Your kids are – and please correct me if I’m wrong – in most cases dealing with some very real individual issues. They aren’t going to have the same bandwidth to care about hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa as a privileged, upper class school (Hello activism clubs at prep schools…)
There are two Mark Morford articles that come to my mind. One, Ask Me about My Agony, has this to say: “the karma of the world is not yours to solve.” (If I start quoting any larger pieces, I end up with 3/4 of the essay.) I’m not saying your teaching is bad, but if you are covering the death penalty, genocide, and slavery all in the course of a semester, I could easily see how students might shut down. How on earth are they to shoulder such ills? Have a hope to making a dent in any of them? Are you saying they are a bunch of losers for not somehow solving societal problems that date back millennia? (Also, are you saying they should be out protesting, because I’m pretty sure they can’t just wander off campus…)
In fact, any media studies major would make the argument that television is an important part of our cultural dialogue, for both teenagers forming their world view and adults refining theirs. Most narrative shows, at least at some point, comment on ideologies or social problems. As one paper put it; “it is television as a whole system that presents a mass audience with the range and variety of ideas and ideologies inherent in American culture.” Additionally, and apologies for the Wiki-links, but I think when discussing the effect television has on consumers, you also have to state how you believe people are consuming that media. I don’t think you are suggesting that viewers behave in an hypodermic way, because that rhetoric is mostly used in the “people who watch violent tv are going to commit violent acts” way. The Uses and Gratification theory may be more applicable. It sounds as if you are concerned that people watch tv for simple entertainment or escaping stresses, rather than information or identification? (Or maybe identification with the wrong types of characters?) (Or, using the Katz, Gurevitch and Haas definitions, you worry that people are watching television for affective and tension release needs.) But as I stated previously, I don’t think that escapism necessarily leads to complacency. And I think that empathy from fiction can only be a good thing.
Do we need political change? Indubitably. Is protesting the best way to achieve that change? Probably not. Will the TV we watch make a difference? Maybe only when it comes to discussing the 24-hour editorial news cycle.
I don’t think empathizing with a serial killer like Dexter makes me a better or a worse person when it comes to being politically involved. I mean, it might say something about my political bent – I can empathize with a person unlike myself, therefore I believe in welfare and immigration reform. And yeah, I don’t have a theoretical issue with the death penalty, because I think a murderer’s life is forfeit. (I think politically in this country it doesn’t work, obviously.) (If anything, I’m now less inclined to believe in the death penalty because of an episode of Oz that absolutely destroyed me.)
In sum, don’t blame societal ills on Breaking Bad. It’s one of the better things America has produced recently.
“Seeing a murder on television… can help work off one’s antagonisms. And if you haven’t any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.” – Alfred Hitchcock.
“One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us.” – Kurt Vonnegut.