Monday, October 19, 2009

A Million Miles from Scranton

Subtitle: The Wisdom of Martin Crane

...In Which I Try Life Without Television, and Subsequently Miss Myself

I've gotten a lot of email in the two weeks since I moved.

Most have been typical: thoughtful people writing to check in, asking how everything's going, asking if I miss them yet (um...), what's different about the city, how's the weather, etc. Some have been unusual ("Should I buy a pig, and if so, how much should I be willing to pay?"). A few have been regarding a Nigerian prince and an enormous sum of money, but I can't reveal specifics.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But the question I've received the most is some variation of "how is your life different on a day-to-day basis?"

To be honest, it's not too different, at least not yet. I'm still getting settled in, so my day's a combination of normal work routine and errand running, which isn't dissimilar from life in Nashville. Of course, I walk more than I used to. I'm generally more conscious of weather. I'm in awe of the myriad scarves I've seen, and have begrudgingly developed scarf-envy. I eat better (fruits and vegetables abound) but worse (relative to "outside" options). And sure, I could ramble forever about how much fun it's been so far, and probably will soon, but that doesn't answer the initial question: "what's the biggest difference in your daily life?"

The single biggest change in my daily routine is Life Without Television, and I'm here to tell you something:

Life Without Television sucks. It sucks out loud, but quietly, since the TV's not on.*

Let me explain...

People discuss pop culture, and some people use those conversations as a measuring stick for their own intellectual efficacy. Some people talk about it as high art; others as mere entertainment. But most still engage pop culture as something generally worth talking about, even if we don't agree on what's "good," "bad," or "meaningful."

However, I know a few people who reject that entire premise. They avoid all conversations about pop culture, and treat these discussion with some combination of "snide indifference" and "active condescension." "Kill your TV," they say. The room stops. Everyone suddenly feels sheepish for debating the cultural legacy of Stephen from Laguna Beach. They end the discussion by negating it from a perceived intellectual high ground.

Here's the common assumption: the less you like about pop culture, the smarter you are. More specifically, the less your tastes align with those of the average person, the smarter you must be. If Joe Average likes CSI, and you don't consider yourself average, you mustn't like CSI. It's okay to like the Ramones, but it's better to like Fugazi. It's acceptable to like Weeds, but it's best to exclusively watch PBS. By this logic, the surest intellectual trump card is claiming to hate all pop culture.

So, "kill your TV" is best translated as: "I know something none of you know. I'm so much smarter than the average person I can't relate--and have no desire to relate--to any mass media at all."

Of course, these people always seemed pretentious and self-isolating and palpably sad to me. But until now, I didn't know if they were actually wrong or right because, until now, I had never killed my TV. When I moved to New York, I packed what I could carry, shipped a few boxes of clothes, got some furniture, and that was it. I made the decision--borne out of necessity--not to bring my TV. A new LCD and a fat cable package could wait. Maybe.

I hoped that I would adapt to Life Without Television. I wouldn't even miss it. I would never buy that new LCD. I would never even dream of 300 channels. I would live an incredibly fulfilling life and pursue higher intellectual endeavors like, I guess, French satire, archeological digs, and pipe-smoking. I would classify myself as a "pre-modern nihilist." I would own multiple snifters.

Then it was Sunday, and I hummed the Mad Men theme to myself. I avoided spoiler-alert phone calls and sent out notice: do not tell me. I am Living Without Television.**

Then it was Wednesday, and I wondered if Kevin (the gnomish Top Chef) made the cut. Visions of Padma Lakshmi danced in my head. I ignored the avalanche of texts about whether bacon, in fact, makes everything better. I stared at my cold sandwich and turned off my phone because I was now Living Without Television.

Then it was Thursday, and I paced my apartment at 9PM. I wondered what Michael Scott was doing. What month is it in Scranton? Has 30 Rock returned? I muttered to hyper-dramatic statements to myself like Caruso in CSI. I shook like Bubbles in Season 1 of The Wire.

For the first time in my life, I thought at length about Martin Crane. Martin Crane is the fictitious father of Frasier Crane, the fictitious radio shrink and protagonist of Frasier, the spin-off to Cheers, the sitcom about a fictitious group of regulars at a fictitious Boston bar. I remembered him permanently affixed to his favorite chair, remote in one hand, cold beer in the other, his dopey face lit by the television's blue glow, an island of pop cultural inanity in the ocean of Frasier's opera-quoting, cherry-swilling life.

And I'll tell you this right now without fear or shame:

I envied Martin Crane. In that moment, I aspired to be Martin Crane. I even hated him a little.

This isn't a natural symptom of withdrawal, it isn't a "healthy stage in the transition," and it isn't a response to the horrific question, "God, what happens on Gameday?" I've quit things before, I typically enjoy change, and I've found viable sports bars. This is me, realizing that my life is quantitatively better with television in it.

Here's one reason television makes my life better (resisting the urge to just type "Padma" and sign off):

Talking about television = Talking about yourself.

Sure, I love watching TV, the daily habits I've built around watching it, and the sheer visceral reward of laughing, scowling, or even crying along with it (Note: I would never cry because of a TV show, especially not Season 4 of The Wire, especially not to the point where I wanted to call everyone in my phonebook and tell them I love them). Let's set aside the visceral joy less-advanced folks like me feel when we see something funny/dramatic/endearing/true onscreen.

The crucial thing about watching television isn't watching television; it's talking about what you've just seen. Maybe you do this in a roomful of people at a weekly "Grey's Party." Maybe you do this on the phone with your best friend after a Mad Men episode. Maybe you do it at a party weeks later, when you find yourself in a conversation with a stranger who also likes Curb Your Enthusiasm. It's not just about the shared experience of watching the show (valuable, too), it's about the self-defining experience of discussing that show.

For example, last season of The Office worried me. The first few episodes spotlit Jim and Pam's new relationship with a will-they-won't-they angle. This made me mad, but I didn't know why. I talked circles around it, unsuccessfully, til my brother said, "you're worried they're going to Ross-and-Rachel The Office."

He was exactly right. Suddenly, I understood my discontent. I balked at this plotline because: 1) these characters wouldn't actually be conflicted about their relationship, 2) this device was already used with Ross and Rachael to ill effect, and 3) it's spiteful of the audience/really freaking annoying.

I realized that to want less Jim and Pam is to actually want more Michael. I realized The Office is best when it's his show. The residual plotlines--like Jim and Pam's relationship--actually have more subtlety, nuance, and payoff if they're kept in lower relief to his amplified zaniness. I then kept watching to see which direction it would go. The Office decided not to jerk the audience around, focus on Dwight and Michael, and plot Jim and Pam as two sane and likable people in a healthy relationship. The challenge was to make that still interesting, and they were largely successful.

So, in that conversation, I revealed that I'm:
1) The type of person who wants pop culture to challenge itself to try something new
2) The type of person who wants pop audiences to embrace that new thing if it's done well
3) The type of person who wants to believe comedy and drama can come from normal people, too
4) Invested in the artistic successes of individual performers I believe in
5) A firm proponent of "giving the ball to your best player."
6) Not particularly patient.
7) Disinclined to be interested in sitcom romances.
8) Disinclined to be interested in romance as the primary plot of any show.
9) Not on Team Jennifer.

In that conversation, my brother revealed that he's:
1) Still way smarter than me.

The point is that I never would've understood my frustration, had a gauge for the success or failure of the rest of the season, or realized my artistic priorities and preferences if I hadn't TiVo'ed the episode, rejected the Entirety of Roy, and complained to my brother. Some of that list is stuff I wouldn't say out loud ("I have a weird distaste for romantic plotlines"), but I'm comfortable expressing when talking about television.

In this way, I've learned that my politics can best be described as "Bunny Colvinesque," and that a past relationship of failed because I sympathize too much with Roger Sterling. In other words:

Talking about television > Talking about yourself.

Of course, the person who kills their TV would scoff at this, claiming it's shallow to self-identify through such a (potentially) inauthentic medium. To that person I would say, "well, you're just being Justin from the Real World: Hawaii."

Chuck Klosterman once argued--brilliantly--that everyone he knew approximated some character from the Real World. If you're a longtime fan, you'll remember Justin, the smart, semi-evil Harvard law student who tried to destroy his season (pictured right with bleached hair). He spent most days needling his roommates, stealthily creating conflict, instigating fights, and breaking the show's sacred fourth wall by admitting to all this in confessional. He basically signed up to perform his own nihilist social experiment, proving how stupid, easily-manipulated, and unreal this "television reality" was. Of course, his cast-mates turned on him (the producers likely did, too), and he soon left the house by mid-season.

The point is this: Justin from Hawaii clearly hated television, or at least the television show he starred in. He went into his TV to kill it. And what the "kill your TV" folks on the outside don't understand is what the rest of us inherently know, accept, and embrace:

Even if you kill your TV, you're still a character in it. You're Justin from Real World: Hawaii. You're even more of an archetype. You're not above the conversation.

You can kill your TV, but it just looks like suicide.

So I'll be here every night with my new LCD on layaway. I'll wonder what happened on Mad Men, who got tossed on Top Chef, and what Padma wore. I'll hum the Curb theme to myself and avoid spoiler alerts about the Seinfeld reunion. I'll wonder what everyone's seen that I haven't, and what my friends now know that I don't. I'll try to remember where I left off, and how far behind I am. I'll sit in my comfortable chair like Martin Crane with no remote and no grin. Then I'll wonder what my line is.


*I don't mean that life, as a whole, sucks because of the absence of one part (TV). I mean that the absence of television, period, is a difficult, undesirable, and relentlessly lame thing.

**I know, much of this is available online. Two things: 1) My internet's not set up yet. At home, I'm really blacked-out. 2) It's less about a TV's physical availability and more about the lifestyle decision to not watch any television programs.


Michael said...

Good read. I tried to kill my TV this summer in an attempt to read more, but the effort failed. I got the dish. Then I realized there was nothing stopping me from turning it off when nothing was on (this sounds obvious but I'd gotten into a routine where as soon as I got home the tube was activated). I had no reason and little desire to watch reruns of Bones...but I did anyway. Now I'm getting better about watching shows that I want to watch. As always, its about moderation.

Chris Milam said...

Exactly. I had my four strata:
1) TiVo pass shows. The elites I watch every week, without fail. Mad Men, The Office, etc.
2) Situational TiVo's. Shows I keep an eye on and watch periodically. I'll set the TiVo if I remember to, and I'm interested on a slow week, but they haven't gotten "season pass" status.
3) Football. I watch a ton of football on Saturday and Sunday if I have the option. Which I currently don't. It's the only thing I spend a lot of time watching even if it's not directly related to a "favorite" team.
4) Everything else. I watch very little of everything else.

Post a Comment