I know I’m not supposed to admit this, because I’m supposed to be a Big Fancy Writer who doesn’t waste time on non-literary pursuits — but I. Love. Television. I always have. The love affair began when my mother dug a tiny black-and-white TV out of a neighbor’s trash to have something to watch while she was on her treadmill in the basement. When my older sister was hogging the regular tv I’d go down there and stand on the treadmill — literally, just stand there — in order to watch Saturday cartoons. It was cold and damp and dark in the basement, and the little half-broken TV only got three channels and had a horizontal stripe across the screen that scrolled slowly up and down the image, but I didn’t care.
My first TV love was cartoons, and I continued to love them well past the age considered appropriate. I watched Nickelodeon devotedly. When my older sister was watching MTV, I rolled my eyes. We had to have a strict turn-switching system, and when it was my turn, I went straight back to Rugrats or Hey Arnold.
Then later on, I discovered grown-up TV. When the good HBO shows started coming out, my parents rented them on DVD a year after the fact and I watched Sex and the City and The Sopranos. I saw more violence and sex than was probably usual for my age, but I was more captivated by the stories than anything else. For that reason, Sex and the City was always something of a drag to me — weak storytelling that doesn’t age well — but The Sopranos was a family event.
There was a slowing down period in college, but when I got my own place and got a tv that actually got more than five channels, it was hard to control for a while. I could watch silly reality TV or serious educational shows on PBS; I could watch old black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason, with Raymond Burr’s enormous shoulders filling the screen. I loved it all. Time that I could have spent reading studiously or writing diligently has been wasted staring into the silver screen.
Why is television so powerfully attractive? It’s hard to say. But I’d argue it uses the same storytelling techniques that make for compelling fiction — just to even greater effect. Great and bad tv shows alike use suspense and drama and surprise; they let you sink into a deepening and broadening world. The really excellent shows in our day — Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Downtown Abbey, and so on — are more like novels than anything else, giving us a large and complex and deep immersion into a fictional world. They tap into the same wells of storytelling hunger that all of us feel.
Television can be delightful as well. There are teams of writers out there right now, whole mobs, sitting around tables and working out ways to make you laugh. They’re funny. Good, serious books are not as funny as often, because television shows have the advantage of the visual cue. A sideways look, a pratfall, a bit of slapstick and we can laugh.
But as I began this post, I want to point out that television also has a funny way of — well, sucking out your soul. Of draining you of creativity, of originality, of energy. Even with all the fun and suspense and surprise.
Have you ever had one of those weekend nights, where you started sitting on the couch after dinner, and hours later you find yourself sinking to the floor in a pile of chip crumbs, the last hours of your life an uncertain haze? Anyone who watches television seriously has had a night like this. The way the shows loop endlessly together, the way our favorite shows are always available in rerun, the way even the commercials know how to pull us in with a cheery jingle and funny joke — all these techniques have been precisely calculated to suck the creative life right out of you.
The problem is that bad television really is bad. It’s clichéd, lazy storytelling. It relies on absurd and offensive stereotypes or sex appeal. When you are passively consuming the same clichéd storyline over and over, you become a little deadened to the possibilities of story. You forget to imagine that other people exist beyond the bro, the shopaholic girl, the nuclear family. You forget that other races and genders and countries have perspectives. You forget what your own perspective is, and you begin to think you’re just like those two-dimensional figures you see on the screen.
I’m thinking about the new series Fresh off the Boat, which has rightly been garnering some praise and excitement for its humor, sharp writing, and bold new choices. But then I can’t help but feel stunned that it’s such a big deal. This is a fairly typical family sitcom — but everyone’s going wild over this one because it’s only the second television show to ever star an Asian-American family — and the first in nearly twenty years. How absurd is that?
Bad TV irons out any of the bumps and wrinkles of humanity; it has only about five to seven possible storylines for all characters to follow. It’s insulting to our humanity and it can really ruin a day’s worth of creativity.
So how can we resist? I know we all need our guilty pleasures. I began this piece talking about how much I love the experience of watching television. I love sinking into that spot on the couch after a long day and relaxing a bit into a familiar story, a beautiful vista, or the life of a character I know. I like being educated and informed; I like learning something about lions in Kenya or the state of Ukraine. But I also like watching voyeuristic reality tv or sitcom reruns I’ve already seen. I’ll probably always love television, and I want to say that without shame. But I know what makes me feel good beyond the time of reading or watching; it’s reading that makes me feel richer and fuller and happier long after the book has been closed. With television, the moment of pushing the power button is filled with a feeling of regret. What just happened to those two hours of my life?