TV Makes Me Sad

I put a photo up on Instagram a few weeks ago with a snotty caption explaining that I don’t really watch TV anymore because of technical limitations.

There’s no longer an actual television set in my apartment, so if I want to stream something on Netflix or via iTunes, I have to set my laptop up at the foot of my bed on a barstool, then connect it to a small guitar amp, which is precariously balanced next to it on the laundry hamper. I let the supposed hassle of this rickety set-up stand in for the true reality of the situation, which is that TV makes me sad.

Oh sure, I have plenty of positive associations with TV. It’s not that I don’t get the pleasure of it. Binge-watching Gilmore Girls and Deadwood with my former roommate; having a standing Thursday night date to watch the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with two dear friends over the course of my first year or so living in Chicago; or even discovering Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night in reruns on Comedy Central during my final year as an undergraduate at Indiana University. I have nothing but fondness for all these shows and the situations in which I watched them. There’s so much joy to be found in the ritualistic qualities of proceeding through a narrative with dogged regularity (or in big gulps of obsessive attention), in the coziness of sharing a meal together and then slipping into that mindset where you’re temporarily unbound from prosaic time and lost in another reality with your viewing companions, where the regular concerns of your day-to-day life are suddenly much less vivid than the plot conflicts of the characters onscreen you’ve come to love. My roommate and I even used to joke about how much we “missed our friends” when we’d come to the conclusion of a season or an entire series.

But behind and beyond all that, there are my more formative childhood memories and associations with TV, which are not as fond or rosy.

I grew up in a house where the TV was pretty much always on. And, yes, of course, there was a lot of stuff that I loved to watch when I was young–the usual kid fare like The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. My dad also used to delight in telling a story about how he figured out how to play that iconic opening riff from the Barney Miller theme song on his old Rhodes electric piano, just so that, as a toddler, I’d come tearing into the living room when he’d play it. As soon as I heard those first few notes, I’d start to boogie, and I’d scream, my Ls and Rs not yet distinct in my baby mouth, “Bawney Miwwew’s on!!!”

But after my mother died and a lot of my dad’s vibrance and creative spark began to dim, thanks to financial stress, lack of romantic intimacy, general overwhelm, and certainly undiagnosed depression, I began to notice the way that the TV had become an emotional pacifier for the household.

My dad was never a substance abuser in that he hardly ever drank and had probably rarely if ever used other chemical intoxicants; TV, instead, was his drug of choice. The addiction started off benign, understandable. During the early years of his marriage to my mother, in the years just before and just after I was born, when he was gigging with his band or conducting the pit for a local musical theater production on the weekends, he would come home late at night, wired with post-performance adrenaline, and crash in front of the TV. He’d sit there until he’d come down enough to be able to crawl into bed and finally get some sleep. But this template eventually began to inform the rest of his life. Any time he was desperate to switch himself off, the TV was switched on. It had to have been an attractive option after a full day of work and a grueling commute home to Indiana from downtown Chicago, and especially so on a Friday night at the conclusion of a week spent at a job he needed but didn’t particularly care about.

In the early ’90s, these Friday night veg-out sessions neatly coincided with the “TGIF” sitcom programming on ABC. The ritual became: dad gets home and orders a pizza; he and my siblings and I eat pizza in the living room, sitting in front of the TV for two hours; then we scatter to our individual rooms and go to bed. It started off feeling like a treat (pizza! funny shows!), but soon became a prison.

I’ve always been highly verbal, longing to talk and communicate about everything, wanting to notice any and all glimmers of nuance and meaning in the world around me. Instead, though, on those Friday nights, I was forced to be silent, to train my eyes on the flashing screen, to accept the flattened meanings and prepackaged narratives that I intuitively knew had nothing to do with real life. Yet the propaganda inevitably began to seep into my early adolescent consciousness. I reasoned that these stories must be telling some sort of truth that I maybe just didn’t have access to if they were being presented, so relentlessly, for our mass consumption. It was dissonance on top of dissonance, further compounding everything that I was already starting to feel was wrong about me.

So, instead of us talking to each other about the pain and sadness of living without our mother, we sat and watched Full House, a “cute” sitcom about a fictional motherless family who, in their scripted and sanitized way, were also not dealing with any emotions that couldn’t be tidied up in 22 minutes punctuated with catchphrases, mugging, and the occasional musical interlude. It was the site of incredible psychic pain for me. Last year when the show was rebooted, I grimaced nearly every day as someone on social media would cheer, with varying degrees of kitsch or camp awareness, about how much they were looking forward to the new episodes.

Unlike my experiences in my late teens and early 20s, where I truly felt like I was watching TV with my friends, that we were journeying into these worlds together, TV in my childhood always felt profoundly distancing. It isolated me from the people I most wanted, and needed, to connect to. I wanted to scream about how lonely I was, at how much I resented the way the TV took us away from each other. Maybe it was also partially a narcissistic wound as well, that I simply wished to have that much undivided attention focused on me.

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Much like my dad, I’ve never been much of a drinker or drug taker. But I recognize the part of myself that loves to attempt to “entertain” myself away from my problems and pain; these days, it takes the shape of endless, bleary-eyed iPhone scrolling. And I know that if I had a TV in my home, I’d be powerless against its seductions too.

Oh sure, I’d probably tell myself that I’d just be keeping up with pop culture by watching the hot new shows of the moment, that I could blog my thoughts about all the sophisticated narrative techniques and gorgeous production design and gut-wrenchingly honest acting that are part and parcel of these newly prestigious series. And, knowing my nasty little competitive streak, I would also feel like I’d have to know All the Shows so that I’d never have to admit “oh, I haven’t seen that one” when people began freaking out about something new and delicious. The time suck would be real. As would the drain on my emotional health.

So, just like someone who has seen drug or alcohol addiction ruin their family but also knows they have the capacity to lose themselves to the same addiction, I’ve had to go cold turkey. Now it’s easier for me to just watch no TV at all.

Which is of course not true. In the past few years, I’ve seen a few episodes of the Kenneth Branagh version of Wallander, a few of the Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes, and literally one episode of Stranger Things. But mostly, when someone gets in my face with truly evangelical enthusiasm to ask “have you seen this show?!” or “do you watch this series?!” it’s just cleaner for me to say, “no, I don’t have a TV” and leave it at that. There’s no simple way in the moment to explain that it’s not the show, it’s me. Of course, there’s the part of me that also sees that, ironically, I’m sometimes actually missing a moment of potential connection with whomever may be asking me that question, and connection is exactly what I’ve been attempting to foster by cutting TV out of my life.

More important to me than any connection with a random friend or coworker at this point, though, is the connection to my childhood self, who can now have the freedom to communicate with me, far away from the distractions of the TV screen.

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