Tech-Savvy or Stuck in the ’90s? TV Shows That Make the Grade

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Tech-Savvy or Stuck in the ’90s? TV Shows That Make the Grade

When you watch TV, you know when a show was created: pop culture references, hairstyles and, of course, the phones tip you off. Some shows masterfully integrate technology, but others, well… when you hear dialogue that shoehorns MySpace, you can’t help but laugh. And just like most things, some episodes depict how we use technology in a way that stands the test of time, while others are hilariously incompetent — it seems there’s just no middle ground.

So go back and watch a few episodes of your favorite show — it’s easy to tell which showrunners still use a BlackBerry Curve to update their Friendster account, but I’ll do one better — I’ll guide you through a few and point out how accurate, or sloppy, they are at reflecting our digital life.

To keep it simple, if they’re up-to-date, I’ll label them “Tech-Savvy.” If they’re a little behind, but still fine, they’re “Almost-Savvy” and if there’s no hope, they’re “Stuck in the ’90s.” Let’s begin!


The HBO hit that chronicles the lives of twenty-something, is spot-on in portraying mobile and Internet use among a very specific subset of young Brooklynites. That grounded-in-reality tech is clear from the pilot episode, where protagonist Hannah Horvath — played by show creator and controversial Millenial wunderkind Lena Dunham — wheedles her parents for more support, saying, “You said it was cheaper for you if I was on the family plan.”

But after she’s cut off, it’s never clear how she affords an iPhone. Her frantic Google searches for medical conditions, though, like “normal tongue,” and the way she ponders how to convey her experience in a tweet, are scarily accurate. Shoshanna and Marnie’s Season 1 walk-and-talk, meanwhile, details the “totem of chat” — what each form of communication means in terms of romantic intent — which remains very relevant. Snapchat hadn’t yet existed, but I’d probably land near the bottom of the totem.

There’s only one instance where realism bleeds into satire. In Season 2, Marnie’s earnest ex-boyfriend Charlie develops an app and strikes gold. By the end of the season, he has a swanky office and more money than he’ll ever need. That ascent into super-stardom is just a little too brisk and unexplained for reality, and the writers should have penciled in a Kickstarter round before hitting it big.

Verdict: Tech-Savvy

Law & Order

The long-running NBC franchise about the criminal justice system has a lot going for it — it’s immensely entertaining, mindlessly fun and the cast is usually strong. But if you look at the various iterations, it’s home to some of the greatest goofy tech references in pop culture history.

The series plays off ripped-from-the-headlines events, so it taps into improbable, yet real-deal, tech subcultures. It tweaks the particulars of popular websites, though, like “Faceunion” instead of Facebook, so the results are often hilarious. Don’t believe me? Check out this montage.

Verdict: Stuck in the ’90s

The Good Wife

“The Good Wife” also chronicles the life of high-wire lawyers. Even though it’s for Baby Boomers, it’s surprisingly adept at weaving real-life digital culture into the courtroom. Like, seriously savvy. Episodes depict hotshot lawyers taking on cases involving Bitcoin, Twitter in a libel suit, a date rape app, even dirty viral video — and that’s just in one season.

Heroine Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, steps into the world of teenage Web culture through her kids, who use Facebook to snoop on their father’s political opponents, and to cover their digital footprints. Sound familiar, parents? This season, the drama refers to both late Internet activist Aaron Swartz and the hacking collective Anonymous, so even though the characters aren’t among the emoji-loving elite, they’re still firmly rooted in digital reality.

Verdict: Tech-Savvy

New Girl

“New Girl” does a good job creating fresh, realistic relationship dynamics between its early-30-something characters, who are all roommates in a contemporary Los Angeles loft. Titular girl Jess, played by Zooey Deschanel, is a shy teacher who moves in with prematurely grumpy Nick, hyperactive and fit Schmidt and laid-back Winston.

When Nick describes Wi-Fi as “wiffy,” it makes sense — he’s the Luddite curmudgeon of the group. But the rest of the group, especially image-obsessed Schmidt, doesn’t talk about social media nearly as much as they should. I can see Jess not having a Twitter account, but I can’t believe Schmidt wouldn’t be all over Klout.

The show features a few other glaring tech failures — for example, Jess meets her boyfriend Sam by pretending to be Katie, a girl he met over the Internet. That’s awfully unrealistic. He said they’d talked to each awhile. Really, no pictures? If you’ve ever dated on the Internet, the scene just sounds unbelievable… or so I’m told.

Verdict: Almost-Savvy

Parks and Recreation

As far as sitcoms go, “Parks and Rec” is better at weaving digital life into plotlines. The adorably dysfunctional employees from Pawnee, Indiana, are a realistic milieu of tech-fearing and social media enthusiasts. While ill-tempered Ron Swanson avoids gadgets with every inch of his brawny body, Tom Haverford — played by comedian Aziz Ansari — obsesses over keeping up with tech trends. In one episode, Tom gets in trouble for texting while driving, which results in a moratorium on his beloved technology.

Tom doesn’t deal well without technology, even after his co-workers drag him on a hunting trip. He complains to Ron, “I got stung by the wood. Oh no, it’s a splinter, I need to get on WebMD now. I need an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy. Something with 4G, there’s no time for the Edge Network!” And when Ron encourages Tom to purge his obsession by talking about it, he goes on an epic rant littered with all-too-real digital references:

“Okay, every day I start by hitting up Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram. Sometimes, I like to throw in LinkedIn, for the professional shawties. Then I like to go on Reddit. Reddit is great because it has all the important links. Wikipedia! Mankind’s greatest invention. You can learn about anything. Take Ray J, for example. We all know he’s a singer, he’s Brandy’s brother, and he was in that classic sex tape with Kim Kardashian. But did you also know he’s Snoop Dog’s cousin and he was in the 96th Tim Burton movie “Mars Attacks”? Suddenly, you’re on the “Mars Attacks” page.”

He continues.

“I love Gchat, you can talk to anybody! I hit up Brad Pitt. It wasn’t the actor. It was actually a guy named Brad that’s a teacher in Pittsburgh. We don’t have a lot in common, but we chat quite a bit. Emojis are little cartoons you text instead of words. Instead of saying, ‘What up, boo?’ you can type ‘What up’ and then a cute little ghost because that means boo. There’s even a little Indian guy, but he has a turban on, which I think is racist. But the Asian guy also has a racist hat on. And it’s like, hold up, didn’t Japanese people invent this? Podcasts! They’re a million of them and they’re all amazing! Jean Ralphio and I have one called Nacho Average Podcast where we rate different kinds of nachos.”

That’s just Tom. The other characters lightly pepper their talk with digital references, especially Donna, who live-tweets — just like the actress who plays her. And that’s just like real-life.

Verdict: Tech-Savvy

House of Cards

Political thriller “House of Cards” debuted on Netflix, a novel way to introduce a TV show that caters to binge-viewing fans — the kind of people who know their way around Twitter. The British adaptation, which features slimy House Majority whip Frank Underwood, played by a diabolical Kevin Spacey, and his inner circle, took pains to pay attention to the digital world. It grasped some areas well, but since it’s a soapy melodrama, it’s not as natural as sitcoms like Parks and Rec or Girls.

It hits it out of the park when it comes to showing people texting, displaying their messages as bubbles on the screen. Instead of calling, reporter upstart Zoe Barnes almost always sends Underwood a text. But the show falters when it shows the snazzy, bean-bag-laden Google-ish office of start-up political blog Slugline, which in real-life would surely be a remote operation or a dingy dungeon. It does show how Slugline lets bloggers post faster, and with fewer rules, than traditional media, but it’s clear the writers didn’t put in a lot of research into how blogs actually work.

Verdict: Almost-Savvy

The next time you watch TV, pay attention to those tech references. Sure, Pinterest and Snapchat sound fine today, but in a few years, when you catch that rerun on late night, you may just snicker and think, “What were they thinking?” Friendster, anyone?

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Culture Desk

A look at the arts and entertainment of technology.
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