Send your question to Umbra!

Q. Dear Umbra,

With mainstream TV having become America’s most important message-deliverer, what characters are carrying the sustainability message best to watchers? Any correlation between character behavior and networks, producers, or writers?

Conan S.
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations TRIPLED!

A. Dearest Conan,

Come again? I thought I was America’s most important message-deliverer. Forgive me, I need a moment here. And maybe some smelling salts.

OK, I’m fully revived. You know what’s interesting about TV? The number of American households with televisions has actually dropped in the last two years, as has the amount of TV-watching we do. I’m pretty sure, however, this just means people are watching shows on their iPads and such, not choosing to frolic among the flowers instead.

So your assertion stands. And yes, the major networks dabble in various shades of green. A few years ago NBC declared that Green Is Universal, though its effort to wedge that message into every show gave us uncomfortable moments like Dwight Schrute appearing as a superhero called Recyclops. To give the peacock credit, the wedging seems to have faded, while its internal effort appears to be going strong. [Ed. note:  NBC is debuting a series this fall, Revolution, about a post-apocalyptic, electricity-free Earth. Find Grist’s take on the show here.]

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

As far as the other networks go, would you believe Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns FOX, went carbon neutral last year? The brass at CBS [PDF] boast about greenness too — but I see no such signs from ABC, despite hints from its parent company Disney.

So what sort of role models are the networks offering us on our various devices (including ye olde energy-efficient TV sets)? The way I see it, today’s TV greens fall into two basic categories — as always, dearest readers, feel free to weigh in.

Earnest Greens. When I polled Grist staffers for their ideas, a few names reliably came up: Leslie Knope, the heart and soul of Parks and Recreation (see our series dedicated to her real-world counterparts); Marshall Eriksen, the do-gooder lawyer on How I Met Your Mother who dreams of working for NRDC (a trait inspired, at least in part, by a writer’s friendship with an NRDC staffer, which gets at your question about correlation); and Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons and Britta Perry from Community — both vegetarians! But too often, I think, these characters are offered as send-ups of greens. Even if they are lovingly rendered, we are supposed to recognize them as a certain type of person, one who is well meaning but essentially inept, and whose earnestness prevents progress in other aspects of life.

Accidental Greens. The other shade of TV green isn’t quite so over-the-top. Take, for example, the six leads from the ABC sitcom Happy Endings. They’re not “green” as traditionally defined, but they live in the city, walk almost everywhere, and once shared a communal vehicle. Two of them own small businesses, including a food truck, thereby bucking the faceless corporate system. OK, they do sometimes tiptoe toward eco-precious: One couple has a Prius (as does the show’s producer, another correlation for you), and an episode in which a character flipped out on Ed Begley, Jr. at a soy convention has been nominated for an award from the Environmental Media Association. But for the most part, these characters represent a different kind of sustainability, one that never self-identifies as green. I’m curious about whether we’ll see more of this as time goes on (and I award bonus points for creativity to the co-worker who nominated Game of Thrones because “there are no cars at all”).

It does seem that TV is influential enough to help make sustainability a regular part of everyday life, though the right might think it nefarious [PDF]. See a character you admire do something green, and you might do it too. As evidence, I leave you with one of the best factoids I’ve ever stumbled upon, courtesy of The Wall Street Journal: “In the 1970s, libraries nationwide saw a spike in interest after the Happy Days character Fonzie got a library card.”


Correction: It has come to our attention that the Fonzie-inspires-a-generation-of-library-goers story is a myth. According to the American Library Association’s website, the organization doesn’t have reliable data to measure such a bump, even if it did occur. This much is true, however: Henry Winkler, who played Fonzie, is passionate about getting kids to read. You can listen to an interview with the Fonz himself here.