Must See TV

I’m taking a break from television. For a couple of reasons.

I just finished re-watching The Sopranos – all of it, six seasons worth, which works out to roughly 70 hours of television. It’s so good, really a great artistic achievement. And, also, a 70-hour investment.

I came late to the brilliance of our generation’s television – I watched a lot of tv as a kid, but then avoided it successfully throughout college and most of my 20s. I had Netflix during that time but I used it exclusively to watch movies.

But then, when I was about 27, I had my own apartment less than a block from a Hollywood Video (remember video stores?), and I decided to see what I was missing. The store was open until midnight, it had a pretty good tv selection, they were cheap, and I could walk over and get the next disc in a series whenever I wanted.

So that was when I first indulged in Arrested Development, The Wire, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and… The Sopranos. It was so easy to burn through a three-episode disc in an evening, so easy to make the decision, when the credits started to roll in an episode, to skip right to the next one.

The thing is, I would never say a word against the quality of this content, or the intentions of the people making these shows. They are artists making art. Complex characters and relationships, themes of life and death and loyalty and revenge, truly powerful stuff.

But I really started to think about what I’ve been writing lately, here on this blog – about the Underworld, about the Anti-Hero. I remember when video was first available on the internet, and the consensus was that short web-videos were the naturally appropriate form for the medium – people would watch for two or three minutes at most. In retrospect I think this was terribly naive or short-sighted, speaking for myself at least.

Instead, the truth of the matter seems to be that the proper duration for streaming video content online is… endless. Literally unending. The ideal web program is subdivided into parts, episodes or chapters, but it doesn’t end, ever. There’s enough hours of any given series that when you get to the end you can start over from the beginning, or impatiently wait a few months for the next “season” to appear. Or re-watch the old episodes in anticipation of the new episodes.

And the content is good enough, a lot of it, to make it feel like this is a really worthwhile pursuit – edifying, maybe not educational, but at least meaningful. Watching the Sopranos or the Wire is spending time with a work of art – what could be wrong with that?

As beautiful, arresting, seductive as it is, though, it’s still the Underworld, I think. I can love these characters, in all their complexity, but they can’t love me back. They’re dead pixels, even if the real actor is still out there somewhere, being brilliant in some new season or new series.

The quality of work, high or low, doesn’t change the fact that the experience is not a living experience. The life and the movement are illusions. In a way, it’s a sort of trance state, being engrossed in television – being enchanted. And I need a break from that sort of enchantment.

I know it’s a cliché, but I spent 70 hours in the world of the Sopranos this year, rather than in the flesh-and-blood world that I physically inhabit. I could have made a living friend instead – could’ve had a two-hour coffeebreak with a human twice a month for a year and a half, 35 conversations, which is probably more face-time than I’ve had with any human being besides my wife this year.

It’s hard to be in the world, whether socially or in solitude – it’s taxing, effort is required to respond to the input of living, unpredictable humans. Sometimes I want a break from my own brain, too – that’s a common justification for tv-watching – but maybe there’s a way to learn to be in this world, with my brain, that doesn’t feel like work, rather than escaping from it?

Interestingly, I feel that this doesn’t apply to movies, at least not at this stage. Perhaps I’ll get to the point where I don’t want to disappear into the underworld for two hours for them, either. But for now, what feels significant is the fact of a beginning and an end. Watching a film is, at least potentially, a cathartic and unique experience – you enter a world, meet new people, accompany them on some kind of journey (internal or external) and then, at the end, you say goodbye to them, they return to their underworld of pixels or (increasingly rarely) celluloid, and you return to your life. The agreement and the commitment are clear and stated up front: you, the viewer, is deciding to enter the world of this film for, say 100 minutes. At the end you get to evaluate, and decide whether your time was well-spent, whether the experience was worthwhile or not.

At the moment anyway, there feels like a sharp, qualitative difference, to me, between this agreement and the open-ended emotional investment in a television series.

And, I believe that to some degree this distinction explains the popularity of series television online, and the declining popularity of movies. Even stupid movies require more work and more investment than an ongoing television show. It’s work to get in, and work to get back out. Emotional ground is covered. Television also requires emotional investment, sure, but the lack of closure is key: the main value to me, the consumer, is the open-ended immersion. I can live in the show indefinitely, I don’t have to worry about it ending and pushing me back out into the world before I’m really ready. And perhaps I’ll never be ready.

So I’m not turning off all the screens, god forbid, but I’m going to see what it’s like to choose movies for awhile – messy, challenging, unpredictable, one-off movies, that begin and end. This is as cold-turkey of a shift as I can handle. I’ll let you know what I discover.

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