Watch Series

I have been so bad this week.  I have had papers to grade, classes to prepare, points to practice, and what have I been doing in the evenings?  Watching television.  Okay, not quite television.  Videos on hulu and Wisevid.  "With limited commercials."  About families.  Okay, specifically one family, the Powells.  "No ordinary family."  I'm embarrassed.  Not because I like the show, although, okay, maybe I am a little embarrassed about that.  But about how all-consuming the apparent need has been to watch one episode after another.  First the cleanly-streaming ones on hulu (oh, that huluPlus subscription is tempting!); then the pop-up encrusted pirated versions on Watch.Series.  I started at about the middle of the season, first working forwards from the oldest episode available on hulu (actually, I think I started from my abc app on my iPad, but let's not go into all the gory details), then working backwards towards the pilot that aired last autumn.  I'm not there yet, but close.  Within four or so episodes.  I would be even closer if the last episode I watched last night hadn't buffered so poorly so that it took me almost twice as long as the episode itself to finally see it all.

This is embarrassing.  I could start telling you about the premise and characters of the series, but I don't think that that would really explain what has been going on.  Sure, see, there's this family that somehow gets superpowers, but that's not the point.  And, okay, the mom (played by Julie Benz, formerly of Dexter, before somebody killed Rita) is pretty good looking, as is her assistant (played by Autumn Reeser); plus they're both supposed to be brilliant scientists, and that's cool.  I wonder how I would look if I could wear my hair like they do?   No, don't go there; that's not the point either.  Or maybe it is, I'm not really sure at the moment.  The point is, it's an escape.  But from what?  This is hardly the first (or, indeed, at the moment, the only) television series that I have obsessively watched.  There's a whole list of them, as well as I can remember, on my Facebook profile.  Soapthirtysomething.  Star Trek. Northern Exposure.  Inspector Morse.  Mad About You.  Sex and the City.  Battlestar GalacticaFireflyHouse.  Rome.  Weeds.   Dexter.  Mad Men.  Castle.  (Not, I know, at all a surprising list, almost ordinary in some ways.)  Some of these I've watched the entire series, others only a full season or two, but every one at some time has been an addiction.

Is this a bad thing?  It's what the genre hopes to achieve, after all: total absorption, your psyche so caught up in the characters that you suspend your own life on a regular basis so as to become absorbed in theirs.  It's like Facebook, only with narrative.  And music.  And witty dialogue.  Okay, some of my Friends on Facebook are fairly witty, but television gives the illusion of real-time repartee.  I'm overanalyzing this.  Or woefully underanalyzing it.  What does it mean to want to escape into a story?  Because, of course, that is what this is.  I do it with book series, too.  Peabody and EmersonHarriet and Lord PeterMidnight Louie and Temple Barr.  I can't even remember some of the series I've obsessed on, there have been so many of them.  It's a great marketing ploy, made all the more insidious now that I have the Kindle app on my iPad.  But for decades before, it has meant furtive late night trips to the bookstore, embarrassing (for me, at least) moments at the cashiers as I stacked book after book on the counter.  "Yes, I'm going to read three of these this weekend.  Maybe even in the next twenty-four hours."

I have work to do.  I have practice to make.  And yet, here I am at home, on the couch, watching television.  Or reading a paperback, I'm really not sure whether it makes a huge difference.  Wanting to be the characters on screen or in print, wanting to have beautiful hair, a stimulating career, an athletic body, a sidekick, villains to battle, the world to save.  Why not, if I want all of these things, get up off the couch, go do my points, pay better attention to what I've been eating, get those papers graded and articles reviewed, start writing something substantive, and act like the brilliant, beautiful, world-saving (or, at least, award-winning) professor that I already am?  Why is it so hard to believe in my own story as obsessively as I believe in the Powells'?  Okay, okay, I know some of the answers.  Real life is messy; you don't get to just stand around pretending to fold the laundry while you talk with your husband about the current mystery you're in.  You actually have to fold the laundry, do the grocery shopping so that you have food to cook, prepare the class, grade the papers, sit at the desk for hours and hours and hours on end to come up with the right thing to say.  I am happy to say that I have never (and I do mean never) watched a "reality" TV show (okay, maybe a few minutes of one in Britain; there were some students living together in a house, I think); who needs that?  Isn't the whole point of television (or literature or theater) to escape from "reality" into narrative, into drama, into meaning?

Which is, of course, what I'm hungry for.  Starving.  But it's like junk food, ultimately unsatisfying.  Because it's not real, not real in the way that I need it to be in order to live.  I know (in the sense, I acknowledge) that I am not alone in this.  These series (of shows, of novels) wouldn't exist if there weren't an audience for them; millions of people share the same obsession as I do, night after night, week after week.  We define ourselves and our culture in large part according to them.  But.  What is the "but" here?  Is it bad that we give ourselves over so completely to fiction?  Is it bad to get so caught up in a pretend story that we forget our own?  Or are we, in fact, feeding a need that is quintessential to our being human--a need for knowledge about others; a need for purpose; a need to learn from the ways in which we imagine others would respond (or we would like ourselves to respond) in crisis?  Or is it, rather, the suspension of responsibility for how things turn out that we enjoy?  After all, I don't have to do anything but watch in order for the Powells to take down the bad guys, learn about the moral responsibilities that their powers entail, keep their house clean and their work in order.  Even better, I can't possibly make a mistake while I'm watching; nothing, for me, is at stake.

And yet, it is.  Because while I am watching, nothing real happens in my life, however boring.  I don't really know which way to go with this: in favor of fiction, or not.  In favor of respites from the demands of the everyday, or not.  I know one of the reasons I have broken my own rules about indulging this week (no videos on school nights; skipping fencing practice, which is a whole 'nother story, still to be told) is that I am exhausted and frustrated with how long it is taking my eyes to heal.  (I'm getting headaches now, which suggests that I am close to being able to see, but I still have a hard time resolving anything at much of a distance and meanwhile I am losing my near-vision as I heal.)  But this is only a proximate cause for my indulgence this week, it does not explain my descent into obsession at other times.  Or perhaps it does, just for different reasons.  I wish that I could resist, but I don't really want to.  Nor am I convinced absolutely that it is a bad thing.  Except that I knew it was bad when my son was three and could turn the television on himself--and did, every chance he got.  At that point, I "broke" the television, unplugged it and put it away in a closet for years, because I knew how bad it was for him to be watching so much.  Now, I'm the one begging him to show me where to find the videos on-line while he's doing his homework.  Ironic, eh?  Or maybe not.  Right now, I really have some work to do if I'm going to want to watch those last four episodes tonight.


  1. Just about anything can be bad if we do it too much. Ironically, after growing up without a television, and after insisting on stringent video/screen limits for our kids for the last 12 years, I am now, thanks to iTunes and Netflix, becoming a television watcher myself. In the late evenings, when I should be working on one or another of my novels, I'm instead chowing down on shows most people watched five or ten years ago: Buffy, Galactica (the new one!), Mad Men. I've even crossed the line into reality shows, a line I was sure I would never transgress, though the show in question (Top Chef) is genuinely good and unexploitative (98% so anyway) and appeals to my inner foodie.

    This is bad because I'm doing it instead of things I "should" be doing. It's good because it leads to more time spent with my wife (not necessarily of the highest quality, but a big improvement on each-to-her-own-screen). And it's good because the shows are good enough that they do what all good fiction does -- dramatize our own situations and remind us of things we might otherwise not think of. What WOULD I do if a zombie apocalypse broke out? (Well, besides feel pretty stupid about at the time I spent watching TV shows instead of acquiring weapons training!) AMC's gruesome but compelling The Walking Dead induces one to think about this with some seriousness. And what do I think about Angel, the formerly unwilling vampire, now that a gypsy curse has caused him to revert to his demon self? Kill him and be done with it? Give him his soul back yet again and let him suffer even more?

    The best fiction, it seems to me, succeeds through dramatization -- the acting out of struggles and question that are familiar to us. The artfully (or gruesomely) drawn circumstances are the hook, but it's ultimately the familiarity of what is dramatized (or its apparent familiarity) that makes us care.

    So I would argue that being hooked on Mad Men, for example, is no worse than being hooked on Great Expectations (eminently hook-worthy) -- which, lest we forgot, originally appeared as a magazine serial :-)

  2. Great Expectations is a very apt comparison! I also agree that the shows that we are watching now are often of great dramatic quality, not to mention (like Buffy, which I haven't watched) raising great philosophical questions. So it is not so much the fact of watching as the urgency that worries me, but then I have the same feelings (as I suggested) about being caught up in books. I also agree about the social effects: my husband and I are are very good friends with a couple with whom we started watching videos during the period when our television was "broken." We watched all of Sex and the City with them and are currently in the middle of Weeds and Ashes. We only get together once a month or so, but they are some of our best friends, largely because we have shared so many evenings watching with them.


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