Are you in some kind of religion?”
That's the funniest of all the reactions during the last 30 years to my admission that I don't watch television. Now that analog television signals are history, I couldn't care less. Anything I want to watch, or better yet, experience, can be found online.
Despite the tiny stickers I leave about, showing a grinning picto-person smashing a TV set with a sledgehammer, I'm not really the kill-your-television sort. When I went to college in 1979, I just fell out of the habit. That was a time before every student's dorm room or apartment had cable, let alone high-speed Internet.
I never got back into regular viewing again, except for a weekly ritual of dinner with my parents followed by “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” In fact, why should I have gone back to television? The 1974-75 season, to my bizarre tastes, had the perfect Friday lineup of shows: “Planet of the Apes,” “Rockford Files” and “Kolchak the Night Stalker.” Then I got a driver's license, which meant drinking bad beer, chasing girls and drag racing. To my credit, despite my obvious lack of a brain, I had more luck driving than Jim “totals a Firebird every week” Rockford.
Considering my 90-mph rampages down a then-lonely West Broad Street, I can conclude that television isn't the most dangerous activity for teens, then or now. Yet when the habit left me, it became clear that I'd never again live my life by a schedule that a network and cable set for me. That urgency — Stop your life! Don't miss the all-new episode! — lies behind my disdain for the medium.
Today, however, the coming of television-on-demand, Internet archives of old shows and the end of the analog signal force me to consider: Under what conditions would I start watching regularly again?
Though much programming — from “Charlie's Angels” to “The Simple Life” — has been execrable, it was never the quality of content that kept me from surrendering free time to the screen. Good programming abounds, even in series deplored by morally indignant people who would never laugh at a poop joke. Case in point: Stone and Parker's “Southpark” satire of World of Warcraft gamers is not to be missed. My wife and I, devotees of all films Mob-related, are working our way dutifully through the DVDs of “The Sopranos.” We can watch Tony put “two in the hat” of some goombah at any time and pace we wish, and I plan to repeat that ritual for the critically acclaimed, dark-and-downbeat remake of “Battlestar Galactica.” Old series return to life in other ways too, as 1970s-era monsters chase Karl Kolchak across my screen whenever I slip a DVD into the player.
What a three-network nation gave us, until cable appeared, was a common popular culture: everyone got it when one of us grabbed his chest, rolled his eyes to heaven, and said in Fred Sanford's voice, “Elizabeth, I'm coming to join you, honey!”
Since I began watching a few programs on DVDs and online, at least I have something to talk about with strangers. Through the years I've noticed how many casually overheard conversations have focused on shows I've never seen. Yet TV is such an atmospheric phenomenon that one seems to breathe it. I can recite facts about series I've never watched or have seen only once. Yet TV conversations can get personal when someone says, “You mean to tell me that you haven't seen ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer?’”
The look that follows can be withering. I would like to reply with, “You mean to tell me you haven't read ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court?'” But I don't. Instead I see enough Buffy to say socially acceptable and conciliatory things like, “That Willow sure is a hot hot hottie right out of hotville.”
The same one-episode history goes for “Cheers,” “Survivor” and “King of the Hill.” They were all fun, except for “Survivor” — watching that parade of greed and betrayal, I felt my brains trickling out of my ears and was reminded why most of TV makes me gag. I hoped a bunch of cannibals would show up to kill everyone, especially the studio bosses who green-lighted the reality TV movement.
All in all, my limited experience with contemporary television has taught me one important lesson: I don't think my life is less complete for not having watched all of these shows. For the very best series, I'll get around to it.
At the same time, it excites me that TV may get more interactive, even as it loses eyeballs to games and on-demand content online. In 2007, “CSI: NY” permitted viewers to create avatars for the virtual world Second Life. In a subplot for the show, a killer left bodies around New York dressed as avatars while concealing clues in the virtual world. “CSI” viewers actually became part of the show by looking for leads in Second Life, and the results of their investigations were supposed to be featured in later episodes. This isn't quite the same as deciding how an episode ends, but it may be a step toward fully interactive multimedia programming that will enter our homes through the same cables now carrying only passive entertainment.
In such a world, you could pick exactly the show you wanted to “be in” and the role in which you might “act” alongside actor avatars. Friday night we might all become Jim Rockford, Jim Kirk (the Chris Pine version, for the younger set), Dr. Quinn, even Homer Simpson or Jethro Bodine.
Even I might tune in, then, and stop having to tell people that no, I'm not in a cult dedicated to pulling the plug on TV. I would be part of a cult making TV a lot smarter. S
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond and blogs about Second Life. He eagerly awaits getting Joss Whedon's “Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog” on DVD.
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