My old cable company (back when I used to live in Flagstaff, AZ) sucked all kinds of rot-water. I lost track of the number of times I would come home on a Friday night to find my service had been cut off for no reason, or the connection just didn’t work, and because the cable company was closed for the weekend, I could not get things fixed until Monday, just before heading back out to the Navajo Nation for the week. Pay-per-view never worked, and of course there is the usual problem of umpteen channels of nothing worth watching.
I also remember watching about the 5th or 6th episode of MTV’s Real World in a row one night, and mumbling to myself; “What could possibly be more stupid than this show?”
I was alone, of course, but a little voice in the back of my head spoke loud and clear; “You watching it.”
One day, I moved across town, and at a certain point I realized this little mini-migration, along the fees for changing various services over to the new location, was going to cost a little more than I could afford on my next paycheck. So, I asked my cable company if I could delay one payment for two-weeks. I could have started with any number of other companies, but for some reason I called these guys first. They said, ‘yes’, and that was enough to solve my problem.
…or at least it would have been, had the person who actually said ‘yes’ to my request been authorized to do so, or even if that had been possible under their actual policies. Apparently, this was not the case. My service was cut off. Nobody cared that I had been told explicitly that I could do this, but they were happy to take my payment along with a couple extra fees and schedule a time to reconnect me.
I told them ‘nevermind.’
My initial plan was to save up and get a satellite dish. I figured it would take about a month to save up the money. What I didn’t plan on was kicking the television habit altogether. By the end of that month, I no longer needed, or wanted television. I had somehow just gotten used to life without it. I watched plenty of movies, and the internet enabled me to catch many great scenes without submitting myself to a whole show (or a whole series), but I no longer wanted continuous access to television.
That was that!
Letting go of television was one of the best decisions I ever in made in my life. I listened to a lot of great music, and I watched some great movies, and I dabbled at writing some things myself, to no avail of course, but I did find the experience a lot more satisfying than your average television show.
When asked about my seemingly freakish existence without functioning connection to a television service, I used to tell people it wasn’t that I wouldn’t want to watch TV, but rather, that I would sometimes watch it all day whether there was anything on it worth watching or not. (That Real-world-binge late on a Friday night comes to mind!) Ever since I was a kid, I recall, getting into a certain kind of mood, one that just made sitting in front of the idiot box seem like the perfect way to spend an hour, or a whole weekend. If that mood hit, I was watching something, even if that something disgusted me. Saying ‘no’ to television service was a way of saying ;no’ to that mood and the wasted time that went with it.
People usually responded to this explanation by telling me how to set up an antenna or steal my cable service.
Seriously, it’s almost as though some folks just can’t imagine a life without television. Life without TV must be an unfortunate existence, they seem to suppose, and so they respond to clear statements of preference for life without it as if it is a clear cry for help in getting television after all.
Things I noticed during my time without service: Some things about television got more interesting when I didn’t watch it regularly, and some got less interesting, a lot less interesting. I mostly remember the latter.
Laugh Tracks: They annoy the hell out of me now. I’m not used to them anymore, and when I hear one I feel personally insulted. All to often, a show runs with a joke that isn’t even remotely funny and uses the laugh track to try and convince us that it’s worth laughing anyway. This didn’t bother me when I was younger, but it sure does now. Those of us who grew up watching television have been trained to go along with this. My laugh-track training now has a glitch and so a laugh track is often enough to take me right out of a show altogether.
I hate them so much!
Made-for-Television Documentaries: the average television documentary crams about 5 minutes of information into a half-hour show. How they manage it, I will never know. The information these shows reveal is consistently lame, because just like so much television fiction, their stories are shaped by people who don’t trust an audience to handle anything but common television tropes. Add to that, the necessity of re-introducing the audience to the whole story at the end of every commercial break, and you have a whole bunch of fluff. If you are watching one of these documentaries for 8 minutes or so, half of that is reiteration of whatcame before and half is telling you something that won’t introduce anything new into the world of your present understanding. It really isn’t worth the time it takes to watch it
Or even to fast forward through it.
There are some amazing documentaries out there. They are not made for television.
News: I never noticed this pattern until I left off of television for awhile, but once I went without for a few years, it jumped out at me plain as day. If you were to measure the amount of time most news programs tease a story over the course of a day and then measure the amount of time they spend on the actual story, you would find that the former often dwarfs the latter.
All day, some of these stations just keep telling you about what’s coming up on a certain news segment that evening. The show starts, and they remind you about the story t the beginning and the end of the first segment. They do a commercial break and then they tell you the story is coming up soon, then remind you its coming after covering something else. This happens again, because they saved the big story for last. Finally, the story comes up and in the 5 or so minutes that follow, they add 1 or 2 new pieces of information to the stuff you already knew and the story is over before you even begin to get into it.
If these guys spent half as much time covering a story as they do selling it, they might be worth watching, but that’s a damned big if.
Drives me nuts!
Good: What I like: There are certain things I enjoy more once you stay away from television for awhile. I just can’t find many patterns to them. I do think it’s mostly in the area of humor. Because I am not constantly exposed to some clichés, they seem less cliché to me. So, a show that is actually just recycling that one great inspiration from the first season may get a bigger laugh out of me than they would if I had been watching it all along. Others in the room may wonder why I am laughing at all, but for me, the joke is new. Their delivery is polished, and it’s perfect. I’m laughing my ass off at a joke everyone else already finds tiresome.
Random Television Sets: The first thing most people do when they walk into a hotel room is turn on the television set. I still did this for years after letting go of TV in my own home. Somewhere along the line I stopped doing that. Nowadays, I will stay for several days in a hotel room without even looking for the remote, much less hitting the ‘on’ button. It’s the same when I visit other people’s homes. If television viewing is the activity of the day, I used to plop down and enjoy it with them. Nowadays, if someone is doing something else in another part of the house, I am a little more likely to seek them out than to sit down with the television viewers.
My significant other, Moni, has very different ideas about television.
She likes it!
After some pretty serious battles over the matter, I finally surrendered, and we ended up with cable service connections after all. It’s a big house, I can usually escape the television if I want to. I do find that a couple of decades without the box have left me much better prepared to just walk away fro the television set than my younger self could manage. I can look at a television without feeling the overwhelming urge to sacrifice my day to its mind-altering effects.
This is a relief.
When that cable guy first showed up, I had visions of a hours spent grumbling in front of reality television or some such atrocity. I felt like an addict teased with my former drug of choice.
Happily the temptation has proven less than tempting.
For the most part.
One of the unexpected benefits of life with my own personal ambassador for television is that she has introduced me to a number of shows I missed during my years away from the box. The experience is hit or miss for me, but the hits have been worth the time.
Arrested Development: This was truly a brilliant show. I am sorry I missed it the first time around, and ever so grateful to have been introduced to it after the fact. I could watch the whole thing again, to be honest, and some day I probably will.
I gushes because it’s good.
Becker: Amusing, but not enough to keep me watching.
Gilmore Girls: This is also amusing, but somehow, I doubt that I’m in the target audience for this show.
Friends: I remember really enjoying this show when it first came out (back when i still had television service. I particularly enjoyed a lot of the Chandler humor, specifically, the way his tone of voice often failed to match the content of his words. He could concede a point with all the conviction of a man declaring absolute victory. (That still makes me laugh.) And of course, the girls were crush-worthy. None of that mattered by the end of the first season though. The show was already old, and frankly the Ross character was so far under my skin, the very thought of watching another episode made me a little queasy. I mean, well done to David Shwimmer! A lesser actor could not have made me hate his character so much, but I do think I was supposed to like him. I just don’t.
Moni watches friends all the time now. I have several episodes memorized, just from chance moments passing through the living room while it plays for the umpteenth time. …Grumble! I still laugh at some of the jokes, and I still cringe at others. Ross still makes me want to gouge my eyes and ears out with a broken ink pen.
Monk: This was really clever. The cleverness got old though. I enjoyed a season or so, and that was enough.
Myboys: One of my old college buddies plays “Kenny” in this show. I knew it was a good run for him, and I was happy to see him have it, but I had no idea how cool the show was. When Moni met Mike at a New Year’s Party, I finally got some notion of just great that gig must have been for him. (She totally freaked!) Moni made me watch the entire series of course, and I enjoyed every episode of it.
Now if only Superstore would make more use of Mike!
Lost: We watched a season or two of lost, and I just wasn’t down to keep at it. I get tired of story lines that keep pulling the rug out from under reality, and this was clearly a worst offender. (I had heard complaints about this feature of the show before, and I must say, I was surprised to see just how bad it was.) Why invest yourself in plot point if the writers feel free to take it away in the next episode and just tell you the whole thing was an illusion, only to rip up the new reality once again at the start of the next season.
The Mindi Project: This is fun.
Community: I had no idea Chevy Chase was on television back when this was showing, and I can’t believe I missed it. Also, I think I was 2 or 3 seasons in before I realized Donald Glover was Childish Gambino. Moni was playing the America video, and I think my response went something like this;
“Hey Donald Glover is doing a parody of the America video, but why would he make fun of that… You know, he’s sticking pretty close to the original here, he.. oh!”
Ah well, I’m old and I’m white. I’m really not supposed to know about rappers anyway, am I? Anyway, “Community” was fantastic. The paint-ball episodes are especially brilliant. Hell, they are absolute genius. I don’t mean ‘genius’ for television. I mean genius! I would watch the whole series all over again, just to see one of them one more time.
Walking Dead: I tried binge-watching this. The zombie scenes get old when you watch them back to back. My internal monologue usually goes something like this; “Hit him in the head! No, now, hit that one in the head! Be careful, somebody is going to slip or something and one will almost get you, then someone will fix it (usually), and then you guys can just hit the rest of them in the head….” Suffice to say, there wasn’t enough good stuff happening outside that theme to sustain my interest. I quit a few seasons in.
Downton Abby: This was interesting. It was also irritating. I may try to explain both feelings in a post some day.
Supernatural: This is the best and worst of television for me. There are times when this show reminds me of those days sitting in front of the television because that’s what I wanted to do at that moment and the story line just wasn’t quite bad enough to change my mind. Seriously, the endless plot twists with angels and demons and various powerful entities grow tiresome. A bit like all the warp-drive talk on Star Trek, the world-building narratives in this show just get old for me. That said, I am actually amazed that they somehow landed on a final story-line in which the heroes of the show actively plot to kill God himself.
..and the fan base is right behind him.
(Chuck is such a dick!)
And seriously, that is brilliant! Getting to this point has occasionally been a little tedious, but the shear audacity of this final plot line is just amazing.
When Supernatural is at its best though, it is when they are doing one of their satirical episodes. Super natural has done some absolutely amazing stories commending on aspects of popular culture or various television tropes. The trickster episodes are good for this. Whether Sam and Dean find themselves in a completely different kind of of show, or suddenly deprived of their role as protagonists in the series, I know damned well I am going to enjoy what follows. Those episodes are right on par with the paintball episodes in Community.
Ah well! I’m not entirely sure what all this adds up to. I haven’t even talked about what television meant to me as a kid. Like so many children, that box was my main baby-sitter, and it had an awful lot of time to influence my ways of looking at the world. That said, this post has already gone on for far too long.
I am mostly talking about a medium that is rapidly evolving into new things. Many of the patterns I grumble about here have already changed. Others are changing now. Whether that is for the better or for the worse, I do not know. One thing that strikes me as I look up at the post above is just how much I have to say about television for somebody who has actively tried to avoid it for much of my life.I still say ‘no’ to television a lot, but as the rambling words above demonstrate, it is still a large part of my life.
Television is a big part of modern life.
Big enough to reach even its nay-sayers.