As I was growing up, I hated family vacations, because they forced me to miss critical episodes of my favorite TV shows. To lose the thread of a TV series was, to me, equivalent to losing some vital connection with the pith of life. (And back then, there was no Internet to access back episodes.) From ages 4 to 12, television was at the very center of my life.
Today, I literally cannot recall the last time I loaned my imagination to the fictional world of a TV series, but it’s certainly been more than 40 years. In the 1980s, many of my friends loved shows like Cheers, Thirtysomething, and Hill Street Blues, but I never bothered with them.
I briefly held a corporate job several years ago, and over the lunch table my coworkers would swap opinions about the various characters on Survivor. That conversation reminded me of elementary school.
Great New Shows
Dan, the dude who runs my local video store (Occidental Video; Occidental, CA), is a terrific guy. I drop in there mainly just to buy chocolate snacks and banter with him. He tells me that all the best writing these days is in TV, not so much in movies anymore. Having worked in the motion picture industry, he has an informed opinion. He thinks I’m missing out, because I’m not following any of the sophisticated, brilliant modern shows. He has a hundred opinions about which ones I’d like. But I feel like I’m getting the best of them just listening to him, and that’s good enough.
It’s not that I haven’t been exposed. About four years ago, my godson had me watch an episode of The Wire. I found it taut and compelling, and I was so interested in the characters that I youtubed clips of the show later, but I was not remotely tempted to go back, watch old episodes, and fill in the blanks of the storyline. My godson’s girlfriend showed me an episode of Sex in the City; I found it trite and goofy much like the sitcoms of my childhood, except that it contained explicit sexual references and people actually uttered words like “penis.”
More recently, I’ve caught snippets at friends’ houses of House of Cards and Breaking Bad, and I even watched one entire episode of Veep and one episode of Arrested Development. And it’s not that I think these are bad shows or that the writing isn’t clever. It’s just that every time I watch, I am reassured that I’m not really missing anything, and that TV is essentially unchanged from when I was a lad.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that is so similar—something about a TV show’s rhythms, momentum, character revelation, prolonged facial expressions, progression to climactic moments, setup of conflict, and so on.
Abstract Mind Realms
When I was a kid, I lived in a TV land in my head. I even imagined theme music demarcating different “episodes” in my life. TV, to me, was ultra-real, more vivid than the life I lived away from the tube. Now, I could glibly say that after all these years I’m still a recovering addict, but it doesn’t really feel that way. I just have no appetite for TV anymore; it’s more of an effort to watch than to not watch. At some point in my youth, I realized, viscerally, that TV was robbing me of something.
Nowadays, I allow other things to rob me, primarily the news, which I read every day online. Today is October 13, 2013; if our politicians can’t strike a deal, the country may default on its debt in a few days, and this really worries me. I’m all caught up in that story, which I have no power over and—whether it happens or not—has no bearing on what I’m doing with my life today, on my responsibilities to myself and others. I am but a passive witness to this drama and, whether or not it “ends well,” it’s sucking away a portion of my life energy, inhabiting far too much of my psychic real estate. I’m not even sure if it’s an improvement over TV. Probably not.
Like a popular TV show, or a major sports event, the news has the quality of a drama in which few of us participate directly but which we witness communally. The national headlines are a shared societal experience, like Breaking Bad or House of Cards. The news also gives strangers something in common to talk about, a universal reference point, like the Survivor characters of yesteryear. (Is that show still on?)
Many people in my vicinity tune out the news because they feel it distracts them from their own lived life. I can understand that. I won’t argue with that.