"You really watch television?" The question hung in the air, unencumbered by any trace of snobbery or pretension, buoyed up by a genuine sense of wonder. That simple, sincere wonder made the question all the more awful, made the inevitable answer all the more shameful, because here was a soul free of the near-universal addiction, and not the soul of a stranger, but a friend, a peer.
It's wonderfully easy to rail against television, but when most people do it, the listeners understand that it's done with one hand behind the back, a hand clutching a remote. Just because we hate it doesn't mean we don't enjoy it.
And then there are those who break the habit; who deny themselves that most accessible of luxuries and take a principled stand against what they see as a menace. In their absolute denial, they should like recovered alcoholics. But when my friend Michael, visiting for a Christmas party, asked my friend Ernie, "You really watch television?" he did so with the wide-eyed surprise of a child. He hadn't broken free; he had never been enslaved.
Ernie answered with his most straightforward, "Yes, I do." I might have protested, something, along the lines of, "Watching TV is the great quasisocial activity. Unlike reading, it's something I can do with my wife — watching TV together is a shared experience, unlike both reading in the same room. Anyway, we can never both read, because someone's always got to keep track of Finian. We can watch TV and monitor the boy at the same time — it only demands half of our attention. And it's different from one of us reading to the other — TV is never interrupted, the stream of words and pictures never pauses, except for a word from our sponsors."
I like it because it's pretty and shallow. The death of Detective Simone on NYPD Blue, an emotional haymaker by TV standards, lacked the weight and meaning of a well-written novel, or a letter written to a close friend, or a chat with my wife, or catch with my son. Those activities may not produce a tingle of excitement, but they are mine, part of building a life, forming a soul. Simone's death was easier to experience — and a good bit more tingly — than all of those.
I have mentioned my friend Ernie, a man with similar weakness. His father, God bless him, used to come in while Ernie watched sports and complain, "That means less than two snails copulating in the garden!" Some will debate him, either because they find TV or sports meaningful. I think he was on to something.
I left a college life blissfully free of television, jumped into the swamp of the world, and promptly swallowed a bellyful. I gave in, almost without a struggle, to the idea that the end of the workday should be the end of all mental activity, that vegging out was something good and proper — restorative, like sleep. (Wasn't there a time when men blushed to be compared to beasts, let alone vegetables? Must've been before what made us human was our deep desire for distraction from death.) Effort is associated with work, and work is over, thank you very much.
This kind of thinking is a betrayal of my collegiate formation. Leisure is not to be equated with sloth. Men of leisure are not men who sit around being entertained all day. They are men who are free from the more servile arts — arts that provide for the necessary elements of life — and so can pursue the liberal arts, things that are worthwhile in themselves. This used to be possible only through the use of slaves; somebody had to do the work.
Now, the average man — me — has hours a day for his own use, and how does he fill them? Watching sitcoms and sports. Abe Lincoln, scratching out his lessons with a piece of coal on the back of a shovel, walking miles to borrow books, would be horrified. So much at our fingertips, all squandered. I have a terrible head for jokes, but I never forgot this one: "Men all want the same thing — cable."
When I was in high school, I came up with a variation of "Let It Be" — "When I find myself in time of trouble/ A.C. Nielsen comes to me/ speaking words of ratings/ watch TV." But he doesn't just come in times of trouble, he comes always, filling up hours of life with his soothing medium.
But, you say, TV is like candy bars. N one would suggest subsisting on a diet of candy bars, but a candy bar every now and then is no problem. I answer that, like some other addictions, TV creates a viscous circle — watching drains the soul of the desire to do anything but watch. Nothing else seems attractive — Lady Philosophy never looked so good as Yasmine Bleeth — so we turn back to the TV.
ABC tried an edgy campaign last year, based on the slogan "TV is good." Despite the irony in which they wallowed, they would have been bolder, and perhaps more successful, if they'd just come out with it — "TV is garbage, but you'll watch it anyway, because you have nothing better to do."
HBO is pulling something akin to this with its current campaign, justaposing the monotony and dullness of real life with the superstimulation of the movies on HBO. Your life stinks, so you may as well watch people who are better looking, funnier, better sexed, and less boring than you. It'll pass the time until bedtime. i actually find myself thinking, "Okay, it's a Tuesday, what's on?" marking the passing of the week with the shows of the day. I don't watch every day, but the thought does flit about my head on a regular basis.
TV has been creeping up on me ever since that fateful day in the DOW clearance tent, inching into my soul, pretending to retreat when I get concerned. Every now and then, I manage to whirl around and face the thing before it can cover itself in explanations — "You're tired, you're burnt out, you don't watch that much, but when I think about what I do watch, I start to loathe teh box.
The loathing doesn't last. I don't think about it too often, partly because I tell myself that this problem will take care of itself. As more children come, as they grow up, there will be less time for television. This is akin to letting the fires of lust rage on, certain that the decrepitude of age will dampen them for you. I doubt the prudence of this course, even as I take it. And in the meantime, I find myself haunted by the odd saw of teaching by example.
Growing up, I was allowed two hours of television a week, shows to be approved by Mom and Dad. I remember the guilty pleasure of watching Wild Kingdom while eating French toast for dinner ("a brinner!"), a treat reserved for Dad's trips out of town. There was rarely TV on school nights, unless it was a special or a sporting event. Later, sports crept outside the two-hour boundary, until by senior year of high school I sometimes watched three college basketball games in a row on ESPN's Monday-night tripleheader. And when my grandfather moved in with us, he brought an interest in prime time. Dad was not about to curtail his father-in-law's viewing habits.
Now I am a father myself, confronted with the effects of my own habits. I get up before Deirdre and Fin, trudge to the kitchen for grapefruit juice, to the door for the paper, and to the family room for my recliner. These days, Fin wakes up second, slides out of bed, and comes running to find me. Once he knows my whereabouts, he turns to his own interests. To my horror, those interests involve turning on the television. TV before noon still strikes me a little like the smell of booze before noon — wildly out of place, unsettling to the stomach. But Fin has taken my affair with the box one step further and brought it into his mornings, just in time for Teletubbies.
Several years ago, I stayed in a house where the TV was on all day. Most of the time, no one was watching, but it stayed on, coloring the air, fuzzing the brain, providing a backdrop of chatter for household life. It frightened me to think of it, playing to an empty room, not being on for its own sake. It frightens me now when I come home to find it on in my own house, unwatched. Fin has pressed the green button, sat for a moment, then moved on, leaving the box to its own devices.
So what will Fin remember of his early years? He enjoys dark shows full of monsters — thing like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Deirdre worries about this. I worry about the TV. But I still really watch television.