For the last four weeks, I went without TV. And the weirdest thing happened: I didn't get any smarter.
I didn't pen (or even read) the great American novel, listen to more NPR or spend extra time boning up on politics online. I can do that while watching TV, after all.
Full disclosure, my abstinence wasn't by choice. This wasn't some "year without" project cum blog, the basis of a potential book deal. My husband and I just moved across country, driving 3,324 miles from Los Angeles to New York City. We couldn't watch TV, at least not properly. Our Prius didn't come loaded with a flatscreen, our hotel suites were sans DVR, cable wasn't set up when we arrived at our Brooklyn pad.
Looking back, I'm not sure what I did with my extra time during that TV-free month. (Apparently, I kept close tabs on our mileage.) In the car, I stared out the window, a worthwhile activity for the first two or three hours. I distracted myself by researching the best roadside diners based on past Man v. Food challenges. I had meaningful conversations with my husband and now know more than anyone ever should about fantasy football rosters. On pillow-topped hotel beds, I caught up on America's other favorite reputed "time suck" a.k.a. email, careful to avoid "spoiler alerts" about eliminated players from Survivor, Top Chef and The Biggest Loser. And, when we finally landed at our new apartment in Park Slope, I sat cross-legged on the empty wooden floor and stared longingly at where the TV would eventually sit. Then -- in the absence of an equally engaging, but mercifully mindless activity -- I went through my "to do" list and got stressed out.
By the time the Time Warner guy showed up to set up our TV the next week, I was chomping at the bit, basically gnawing on an old TV Guide. Societal norms tell me to be ashamed of that fact, to deny it at all costs, but it's the truth. This was a stressful time for me and, while some people drink a bottle of fair trade craft brew beer in a repurposed bottle to unwind at the end of the day, I watch Gilmore Girls re-runs. I was thrilled to stop shushing my friends when they discussed episodes of programs I hadn't yet viewed. I couldn't wait to catch up with The Good Wife's Alicia, The Office's Jim and Pam and Parenthood's Crosby (oh, silly Crosby), who had followed me from across the country and miraculously remained exactly the same.
I'm not sure precisely when television went from being considered a modern day marvel to "the boob tube." Perhaps it was when broadcasts from Carnegie Hall got bumped for shows like The Lone Ranger in the late 1950's. Maybe the introduction of cable in the 1970s turned people off, as new networks and channels "lowered the bar" to vie for ratings. In 1961, Newton N. Minnow, chair of the Federal Communications Commission ("The FCC"), famously referred to television as "a vast wasteland." We've been both disparaging and loyally watching TV for that long. Imagine all the people out there throughout the last 50 years, publicly denying or apologizing for their viewing and then sitting shamefully at home in the dark like criminals glued to The Brady Bunch or Grey's Anatomy. So much self-flagellation; it's exhausting to consider.
In the last decade, it became trendy to deny watching episodic programing, but then add a requisite "except for HBO" caveat. Meanwhile, movies -- I'm sorry, films -- have remained acceptable, especially when shot for under $10 million staring Peter Sarsgaard lookalikes, premiered at Toronto or Sundance festivals and screened at decrepit art house theaters with gum stained red velour seats.
I love stories, so I'm a sucker for high and low incarnations: movies (tent pole and indie), books (trashy and literary) and, yes, TV (HBO and otherwise). For me, there's nothing more relaxing than total absorption in a dramatic or comedic yarn, comfortingly resolved at the end of the hour.
I am not alone. Many of us become attached to TV programs. As a child, I spent Thursday nights perched on my parents' bed with my entire family watching The Cosby Show and Family Ties. In my memory, that was quality time spent together laughing and even occasionally tearing up. We romanticize radio days, but why is that less poignant? The end of The Sopranos is still causing an uproar. Arrested Development is supposedly resurfacing as a movie. People are invested.
Don't get me wrong. Not all programs are created equal. There is such a thing as bad TV. I don't watch The Real Housewives of anywhere. Yes. I am that one American. It depresses me that stupid people with terrible values not only exist, but are currently making more money than I am. I don't watch American Idol because the soft rock ballads get under my skin. With or without Charlie Sheen, Two And A Half Men makes me want to stick pins in my eyes. But I do watch The Bachelor and Drop Dead Diva, so who am I to judge?
On the whole, there's no real reason why episodic storytelling should be any less valuable than films or books. Why is Judd Apatow's breakout movie Knocked Up more worthwhile than his TV show Freaks & Geeks? The basis for Sex & The City was by all accounts a mediocre book and later two terrible movies were spawned, but the TV show changed the face of culture, for better or worse. Don't even get me started on Maude.
A few years ago, my girl friends and I discovered that one pal's new boyfriend had no TV. After we discussed that fact, one friend sent me a link to #28 on the website Stuff White People Like. The topic was titled: "Not Having a TV." It read:
The number one reason why white people like not having a TV is so that they can tell you that they don't have a TV. On those lonely nights when white people wish they could be watching American Idol, Lost, or Grey's Anatomy, they comfort themselves by thinking of how when people talk about the show tomorrow they can say 'I didn't see it, I don't have a TV. That stuff rots your brain.'
That's almost as hilarious as Stuff White People Like #75: "Threatening To Move To Canada." I'd add my own purely anecdotal observations about TV abstinence:
Whenever I meet couples in my 30-something demographic who tell me that they don't own TVs, they inevitably end up asking me minutes later if I watch some show like Bored To Death or Vampire Diaries because they've been watching outdated episodes via Netflix on their laptops. Why is being behind on television somehow more intellectually acceptable? Watching it on a computer doesn't change the plot line, just the image quality.
Often, people who don't watch TV argue that they "don't have time." I consider this a myth on par with not having time to eat. If I can work full-time, read books, keep abreast of current events, see friends, spend time with my husband, stuff junk food in my face and watch Top Chef, then so can everyone else. People who don't have time must be busy with different stress releases, even if just for a few minutes after the baby finally sacks out. And I'm not talking about cooking elaborate meals or looking at art. I'm talking about low culture. Maybe it's reading blogs or surfing YouTube kitten videos, cyberstalking exes on Facebook, gossiping on the phone or reading Snookie's tweets, but nobody survives completely without guilty pleasure.
TV is a huge part of our culture, like it or not. At dinner not long ago, a deeply respected visual artist I know -- who unabashedly admits to watching everything from Mad Men to Gossip Girl -- called our time "The New Golden Age of Television." I think she's right. Yes, even though The Sopranos is off the air. Sure, there's a lot of crap on the boob tube. But there's also so much diversity in programming that there should be something for everyone.
So, if you love TV, I say enough with the denial. Stay strong as saccharine holiday episodes undermine our argument at its core. Keep the faith as we look towards a late December when favorite shows are preempted for classic movies like It's a Wonderful Life over and over again. Scream your praise from the rooftops. Stand tall and defend the underdog without shame. Say it, don't spray it.
Now go back to your regularly scheduled programming.