Readers!

Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Top Ten Reasons to Stop Watching Television

 10. Enough with The Wire. You’ve already seen all the episodes of The Wire, called by many the best thing that’s ever been on television, twice.  And although Lester Freeman is right up there with Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn in your personal detective hall of fame, the truly fascinating characters are the drug lords, lieutenants and soldiers. And they keep dying. Bodie shoots Wallace, and one of Marlo’s guys shoots Bodie. The spawn of Satan, Kenard, shoots Omar while he’s ordering his Newports, or maybe it’s his Honey Nut Cheerios. When Stringer Bell finally bites it, you feel sorry for him—and what does that say about you? The dockworkers, most of the staff of the Baltimore Sun, the school staff, and the police are mostly too depressing for words and also too familiar. You could run into them downtown getting coffee. In the end, Bubbles may prosper, but McNulty? He’s still alone, still drunk, and only a little chastised.  Is this series worth the 60 hours it would take you to watch it a third time?


9. Why so many police shows? You’re beginning to suspect that the number of police and law-and-order shows on TV—you try to count how many there are but lose interest at 200—is a sign that someone out there believes you need convincing.  Of what, you may wonder. On the one hand, many of these shows illustrate the deeds of dirty or homicidal cops, even dirty or homicidal squads, precincts, and cities. On the other hand, these programs never fail to assure you that in the long run bad cops, DAs, and judges will be brought to justice by right-minded good cops. All is well. We, the police, can smoke out lawbreakers even among our own, so imagine how efficiently we can protect you. By you, we mean what’s left of the white middle class. The one percent has its own security. The poor, being poor, don’t deserve protection. Nor do people with certain other characteristics--for example, Eric Garner. Who, incidentally, is already dead.


8. There are plenty of birth stories right in your own neighborhood. You always perk up when a character on a sitcom turns up pregnant, as Mindy Lahiri does in this season’s The Mindy Project. You look forward to the birth episode for weeks in advance because you can count on several uplifting or at least amusing events. In The Mindy Project, for example, Danny, the baby’s father, and the other veteran obstetricians on the show will unaccountably panic. Mindy will curse like a sailor--albeit a sailor who happens to be on network TV. The upper middle class Lahiri parents will duke it out with the working class Castellano parents. A messy new baby will result. Your dopamine levels will skyrocket. Never mind that Mindy’s labor will take about eight minutes, or that all parental or extended family conflicts will get hugged out before the afterbirth is delivered. (Oh yeah, you won’t under any circumstances see the afterbirth.) 

May I make a suggestion? Invite all your women friends who are mothers to your home. Let each one tell her birth story or stories at length. (Actually, this might run to a few evenings. It might constitute, if you will, a series.) Some women (okay, me) are so desperate to be heard out on this subject that if you show the slightest bit of interest, they’ll start telling you their birth stories in the grocery store checkout line, follow you into the parking lot, and camp out in your car until they’re finished. Restore their dignity. Invite them over. Make a cake. Hilarity will ensue. And pathos. And truth. 

#7. The news is not really the news. Broadcast news amounts to one or two or three very attractive people delivering facts (usually) that are so general and brief you can’t remember them five minutes later.

Twenty-four-hour cable news consists of what “we know now,” which is rarely very much. Was there a school shooting? Who were the shooters? How many? Are they dead, wounded, or still at large in the neighborhood? How many victims are dead? How many wounded? If your kid is on site, what should you do? That last question will be the first answered, as it should be, but if you want reliable answers to the other questions, wait a day or two to tune in. Until then, CNN and its ilk will provide only overhead shots of parked police cars, reporters “on the scene “ explaining that “events are still developing,” and anchors in the studio trying to stretch the segment to the next commercial break.

Cable news “analysis” consists of pre-scripted discussions intended to represent opposing viewpoints. In truth these two viewpoints are nearly one. Two retired military types, for example, might discuss whether it’s better to fight ISIS on the ground with our own troops or fund proxy wars (although they won’t use those terms). What they won’t discuss, what will never be suggested, is if massive deliveries of food, medicine, and building materials might be the best way to keep us safe at home and allow us access to certain resources (which they also won’t mention).

You know this already. So why are you still watching?

6. Firefly is never coming back. Neither is Rubicon nor The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd nor any of the programs my husband and I have enjoyed over the years that were cancelled soon after they started. If we liked a TV show, it was quickly axed, or so it seemed to us. 

When these programs went off the air, characters we were (way too) invested in disappeared overnight. What happened to them? When the shock lifted, we were able to answer our own question. Nothing happened to them. Nothing had ever happened to them. They weren’t real.

But that’s the case with all characters in all stories, isn’t it? I would argue that it isn’t. Some stories are so rich that the characters “come alive”—to use that favorite phrase of book blurbers. Pierre and Natasha in War and Peace, for example. After their war comes their particular peace, and it’s not glamorous, but the depth of their interiority, what they have made of the events they’ve seen and lived, renders them as real as you or I, possibly more real. What I mean by this is that their inevitable death—the undeniable end of every character or person’s story—loses its importance.

 At least with Firefly, a feature-length film was produced (Serenity) that answered some lingering questions, killed off a couple of our favorite characters (allowing us to grieve the loss of the show), and left the other characters poised to go on with their lives a little wiser. That’s all we can hope for from any narrative—some die, some survive, and some survivors are able to make something of what’s happened to them. That’s a lot, nearly always more than TV can achieve, or tolerate. Firefly may be an exception, but as I’ve already said, it’s never coming back.


5. Commercials and the effort to avoid them are . . . well . . . bad for you. TV ads destroy your self-image, persuade you to spend money on things you don't need, wheedle their way so far into your head that you can still sing the Oscar Mayer theme song from the 70s in its entirety. What else might occupy that memory slot? A few bars of Bach or Rocky Raccoon?

If you have Hulu or something similar instead of or in addition to broadcast TV, you still watch ads, the same ones over and over again. No ads accompany Netflix movies or the offerings of some other channels, but how often have you clicked through what's streaming on Netflix for 15 minutes, found exactly nothing that interests you and watched something anyway? How many nights have you stayed up too late binge-watching episodes of Breaking Bad or Longmire or Friday Night Lights? So many episodes that in the morning you can't remember what happened when or why it all seemed to matter. In avoiding commercials, you've squandered even more time staring into the flickering screen.

4. Illegal downloading. You don't do this, right? Because it's illegal. We don't either. Don't ask me why I'm always a season ahead on Downton Abbey. By the way, when you're a season ahead, you can't talk to anybody about Lady Mary's latest romance or why the writers keep using the same plots: after putting Bates in jail for a murder he didn't commit, now it seems that they've put Anna in jail for the same reason. No water-cooler chitchat for you. You should have the words spoiler alert printed on your forehead.

3. Inevitable disappointment. The really good shows, like Better Call Saul, the one or two series a year that open your heart and get you thinking at the same time as they make you laugh and cry, are sure to persuade you that if you look hard enough, click through all the channels, all the menus, you can find something worth watching every night of the week. This effort, sure to fail, will leave you, to quote Dr. Seuss in The Butter Battle Book, "downright despondent, disturbed, and depressed." Also pissed off. Enervated. Soul-sick.

2. There are other things to do. I'm having trouble finding them too, and yes, some involve more effort than I want to expend after 7:00 most evenings, like leaving the house and talking to people I don't know well, although one of these days I'm going to do more of both those things. But there are other options. Reading, for one. Print provides stories that hypnotize, characters to identify with, brand new worlds. You just make up the pictures yourself. Even working jigsaw puzzles isn't so bad. You can listen to a book on tape while you separate the sky pieces from the barn pieces. You can play cribbage with your mate. Or walk around the neighborhood in the dark. You and I do have alternatives, and almost all of them offer us more than television.

1. You could start living your life. If not now, when?