When I was child, it was impressed upon me that television was evil. Over the course of my life I have had a complicated relationship with television. Ultimately, I have viewed it more with wariness and disdain. As a parent, I have done the most to limit the presence of television in my daughter’s life as much as possible.
Since writing the following essay about a decade ago, a lot has changed in my life. It is not that I have become less wary about television, rather I have had deeper philosophical shifts that have led me to view life and everything in it differently including television.
The major shift is the constant striving to be more moderate in everything I do, choosing the middle path. As a result, I have become somewhat more tolerant of television and have allowed myself to watch some here and there. In this period, the rise of streaming services like Netflix have changed nature itself, banishing ads and increasing the quality of programming.
So although television is perhaps still finite, it is more multifaceted than ever before, and I no longer look at it as completely depressing. With that said, here is a look at how my experience of television has been shaped as a child of the Eighties who graduated high school in the year 2000. Perhaps you have come to some similar conclusions or not.
When I was in first grade, my teacher showed the class a movie about school bus safety. In the movie there was a dramatization of a little girl being crushed by a bus. I had never seen television violence, since my father refused to have a television in the house during my childhood. The trauma of the scene made me inconsolable and not knowing what to do the faculty called my mother, and she had to go into the school to calm me down. From that day forth, she vowed to my father that she would get a TV so that I would be prepared for situations in the outside world.
When I was growing up, like any good American boy, I forged a relationship with my T.V. My father begrudgingly allowed me to view the three channels on the box in small bursts, a couple of times a week. But, when my parents split, my mother got cable, and I would eagerly go over to her house to warp my mind because I was a junky who needed a fix.
I took delight in watching programs like The Simpsons and Married with Children. These shows have broad appeal because they are based on prototypical American families. In both shows, there is the male provider disenchanted and disillusioned. He has a stand-offish relationship with his family and a job that he hates but must do for the good of his people at home.
The routine suburban life was made normal after WWII. The cul-de-sac reality is now held up as either an ideal or people’s only option, which of the two it is, I’m not totally sure. The lifestyle is often cleverly portrayed on television under the guise of making the ordinary seem to have the possibility of being extraordinary. It is something familiar that people can derive false hope from. Central themes are: the relationship between husband and wife; the local hangout of Moe’s; the quirky, quasi-regular children; and the characters from the neighborhood—the every-family. Many of the jokes are potshots at how depressing the lives of the characters are.
In Married with Children, Al Bundy is still clinging to his boyhood dreams of football stardom because he seemingly has nothing else to live for. Homer drags himself to the plant every day, working for the greedy, conniving Mr. Burns—their lives are a reflection of the status quo. I understand the humor of the parody, and I can’t say that I haven’t wasted hours of my young life on the cheap laughs. Certainly, I am not opposed to some good old fashioned escapism. But the sickening impact of these shows is that they reinforce our idea that that reality is all life has to offer: a suburban conveyor belt to the grave. These shows are a shallow, sad depiction of life.
As I got older, I would feel hollow and depressed after each half-hour program, which seemed to not scratch the surface of what life is really about. I felt as if I was trapped in this box with no way out, unfulfilled. I would jump to the next half-hour program like a crack fiend to the next rock. I eventually became addicted to this cycle of watching these shows and living the lives of these false people.
My parents were hard-working and consequently frequently absent. After they separated, most of their money was given to lawyers and dwindled due to the expenses of pulling apart their lives. I was forced to spend long hours alone. To comfort myself, I would eat and watch the tube, escaping to another world. I grew hefty, a depressed thirteen-year-old, seeing myself as a future Homer. I felt trapped. But, one day I left the couch and picked up a basketball, and ignited myself with my first true passion.
I was obsessed with sports, a social currency for young men growing up in this culture: little league, midget football, playground basketball, Bills football games, sports cards, etc. More than an athlete, I was a voyeur who obsessively watched and idolized professional athletes, none more than Michael Jordan. I viewed myself as a pudgy outsider, which I was constantly reminded of by my classmates in my new school, in an especially unflattering way. However, I erroneously viewed my athletic prowess to be above average, even when I didn’t have the results to corroborate that assumption.
I enjoyed playing baseball, but I was cut from the Babe Ruth team, which was exclusive, unlike little league. Being cut from the seventh-grade basketball team the same year was a blow to my already fragile self-esteem and further isolated me from my classmates. I felt increasingly ostracized, not settling into any group in the relatively small school (mine was a large class of seventy). Most of the kids I wanted to be my friends and the people I admired in life were athletes.
This was also the time my biological interest in women burgeoned, and I was beginning to feel more socially isolated as no young ladies returned my interest. I thought I needed athletic success to fulfill this void between me and the rest of the world[ these were the people who I prized in school and lauded by society. Jock, that was the social identity I needed. I wasn’t happy with who I was, and I needed a positive outlet for my time and energy. Basketball became my outlet.
I played the game non-stop and would search for any advantage to improve. I watched games and voraciously read about my love in books like Fab Five, A Season on the Brink, The Last Shot, and a host of other books I devoured like basketball porn. By dedicating myself to improving my game and reading voraciously, I began to move away from the television and into something else.
I stepped out of my fat depressed body into the body of an athlete and with it came the spoils, most importantly social success. I had moved away from the finite and began to glimpse the infinite.
Although my basketball career ended during my junior year of college, after two years of competing at the Division III level, I have been able to continue to grow through the lessons I had learned in that painful and gluttonous period of transition from feeding my mind and body junk to becoming someone better. Writing has long ago replaced basketball as a driving passion.
Now I live a life of freedom. I do not watch television in my house. I have stepped out of the box, off the conveyor belt, and into a new life where I have the option to be what I want, not just another Al or Homer. I am in a place where dreams live and problems are not solved in twenty-three-minute segments.
I am free and happy, not fettered and depressed. I use my words to build my own story, not listening to what network television thinks I should be. Through reading and writing, I reach for something far more fulfilling, author Tim O’Brien once said that “writing fiction is the best way to immerse oneself in the mystery.”
The reader can share in the unique adventures of people who they have never met. I’m ever bored when at the mercy of circumstance, confronted with a situation like waiting for the bus and riding on an airplane. The great mystery surrounds us all; it is those who read and write that begin to immerse themselves in it, so we may make more informed decisions in our futures, not taking the path laid out for us by the errors of our forefathers. It offers the power of choice, scrutinizing the reality handed to us, searching for a better way. Homer and Al and the other loser icons of the box are dead to me now, and I couldn’t feel more alive. Besides, I always found canned laughter insulting.
As mentioned earlier, I have since modified my negative view of TV and admit that there are some good programs available. The fact remains that even in moderation, one still needs to discriminate. Being selective for myself and my daughter is a new game to play. Children need to be aware of their own generation’s pop culture without becoming absorbed by it. So,what do you watch? Any good suggestions?