I Can’t Stop Watching Live Television
The ancient art of watching whatever’s on gets me thinking about some real philosophical questions
In February of this year I was sidelined with a flu that laid me on my couch for days. I found myself lost in childhood feelings, hazy remembrances of sick days and cartoons, memories that for brief and occasional moments felt indistinguishable from reality. In this state I found myself wanting to re-create the experience of childhood sick days. I wanted to lay on the couch and watch talk shows, law office commercials, court shows, soap operas. I wanted to doze in and out of Tom & Jerry cartoons, the remote dropping out of my hand. So I did exactly that. I paid extra for the Hulu feature that allows you to watch Live TV, that is to say what remains of channels. Remember those? I flipped up and down. Nothing was on that I wanted to watch, which is exactly the feeling I wanted. I settled on cartoons which stayed on for hours. And then for days.
A few weeks later the lockdown came, and the hazy remembrances never quite left. In Ling Ma’s book Severence a pandemic comes from China and cripples American capitalism. You won’t believe me now, but I read Severance in early February right before I got sick. In the book, those affected with the virus become lost in memory. For the first few weeks of the pandemic I marveled at how Ma had come so close to predicting COVID but had gotten the memory part wrong. It would take me a few months before I would realize she had gotten that right, too.
This year I’m remembering television, the bizarre experience of channel surfing, plopping down on a couch to watch but with no idea of what you were going to watch. You didn’t choose a show to watch from a list of available shows. You just turned on the TV to any channel to see what they were showing. Here was an old detective show, he was an episode of Cheaters, here was the episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island. I’m remembering what it felt like to never have to decide what to watch. You never chose anything, you just chose not things. You might turn the channel at a commercial break if something didn’t keep your interest, but you never really exerted any will beyond that. The choice was never “which thing am I going to watch out of all the things that there are in the world to watch.” It was much more binary. It was simply “Am I going to watch this, or am I going to keep looking?”
I’m also remembering when the important primary question of my life was that simple. This? or Something Else? A time before I was my own content maker, before my reality was user-generated. I was not in competition with others for a reality. There was no social media, no people pretending to be normal like me for me to unfavorably compare my life to. There was just me and what I have going right now. Do I like it or not. Should I stay or should I keep moving? It seemed there were fewer options, and maybe just more comfort with the idea you didn’t need to have every choice, in order to have everything you needed.
I don’t know if that’s what it was like, but that’s how I remember it. Anyway all I can ever know of what happened is just what is remembered.
Live television became part of my coping strategy for life in 2020. Sometimes I looked for a particular sporting event or a news show. But more often I choose Live TV when I was fatigued of trying to understand the world, and of deciding what to do about it. As a writer I spend all day deciding between sentences, choosing words, making paragraphs. As a parent, as an adult the day is filled with both sense making and decision making, with trying to figure out what to do about things that truly feel incredibly confusing and incredibly high-stakes. Social media, which is this generation’s version of having the content programmed for you, is somehow even less freeing. The problem for me is that it’s too live, its impact too present. I find myself overpowered by the meaning of every post, every tweet, getting lost in the the pain and overwhelm and desperation, (and obnoxiousness) of a million strangers and mutuals. As Ashley Ford once described it to me in a podcast interview, it’s like being in a video game where someone else has the joystick.
Live TV is the opposite of decision making, and the opposite of sense making. No sense is made. Nothing is at stake. It is one stupid thing after another, punctuated by one slightly less stupid thing. Lately for me it is movies from the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. I find them interesting and meaningless, and on very rare occasions wonderful.The clothes are good, and I remain fascinated by how people talked and dressed, how sex was handled, how a story between two people unfolds, how entire plots are built around misogyny, how a character decides to tell another character about their life. I am amazed by the slang, the public institutions that existed that I didn’t know about; automats, dancehalls where men paid 5 cents to dance with a woman. I’m fascinated by the one black person in the background of one scene in one department store. I’m amazed by the eroticism, the not-so-subtle homosexuality, the cars, the coats of the extras in street scenes. I’m amazed by the whiteness; bleak, obtuse, overwhelming. I’m amazed by the bad acting and by the fantastic acting. I’m amazed by the things that have never changed, the questions that have yet to be answered. How do you do life? How do you love? What can be done about hurt?
But what I like most about these movies is that I didn’t decide to watch them. I’m not responsible for them. I am not a creator, just a viewer. I like it because it gets exhausting choosing one thing from among all the things there are. There are too many things. I read somewhere that we process more information in a day than people used to process in a lifetime. I accept that this is what is is now. I don’t even know if it’s bad. It’s just nice to sometimes take a break. It’s just sometimes nice to only be responsible for a simple binary choice: stay or go?