Sunday, January 25, 2009

An Idiot Without A Box – 20 Days of TV-Free Living

I am going to attempt a feat that has never been accomplished in all of history: writing about getting rid of my TV without being condescending or self-righteous. I don’t know if I’ll succeed but, if I don’t, know that I at least tried.

Why Did You Do This? What Is Wrong With You?

First, just about every day, there is some study or another talking about how much TV Americans watch and how TV is to blame for just about every negative modern trend. Kids watch an average of 22 hours of TV a day. Watching TV makes you obese, brain dead, poor, causes acne. Stuff like that. But the study that really caught my attention was one that found that people’s state of mind after watching two hours of TV was comparable to mild depression. That sounded about right to me. Not major depression, like where you start thinking about the futility of all mankind and wonder why you should even bother waking up tomorrow morning. Just moderate, blah-like withdrawal. Second, TV can be an unbelievable time-suck, and I am highly susceptible. Once you get settled down onto the couch and start staring at the tube, it’s hard to extricate yourself. Half hours glide by, and all the things you know you should be doing – taxes, calling your mother, bathing – just sort of fade from your consciousness. Next thing you know, it’s 2AM and you’re watching a an Eric Estrada timeshare infomercial for the third time.

So, OK, mild depression, wasting of full days. Nothing so horrible about that. But, the final factor, the one that really pushed me over the edge, is the rampant abuse of the laugh track. When you start paying attention to the laugh track, it goes from noticeable to ridiculous to downright insulting. The jokes that get a computer-generated guffaw have gotten dumber, and the intensity of the fake laughs has risen. Schlubby overweight sitcom man says to impossibly disproportionately hot wife “oh, sure your mother is invited, as long as she eats down in the basement” and the laugh track people break down, gasping for air, popping blood vessels like that is absolutely the most hilarious joke that has ever been made. If a real person ever laughed so hard at a joke that stupid, you would have the right, maybe even almost an obligation, to kick his ass.

The TV-Free Setup

All of these thoughts came around the time I was preparing to move to DC. The cheap and lazy sides of me (which carry a lot of weight in my decision making process) liked the idea of not having a monthly cable bill and having one less bulky item to drag out to the moving van. So that was it; the TV would stay in Boston.

I still have a few TV sources though. My Netflix subscription is still running (I can watch DVDs on my computer), the gym in my building has TVs on the treadmills and I live within a few blocks of half a dozen bars that, of course, have TVs covering every inch of wall space. So I can still watch stuff by either ordering shows in advance, running or drinking. The Netflix / DVD setup has worked well for following series I actually like to follow – currently The Wire. When an episode is over, it’s over, so I can’t just space out indefinitely. If I want to watch another episode, I have to at least make the effort of dragging my finger across the touch pad on my laptop – quite a bit more energy than is required to keep watching shows on TV. The treadmill setup is good for some things. I can tell people “well, I guess I’ll hit the gym” without specifying that I’m really going to run a few 16 minute miles so that I can watch That 70’s Show. Even I have enough personal pride not to stand on a motionless treadmill watching TV. So, down in the gym, I can only watch TV for as long as I’m actually moving. If I wanted to watch a football game on the treadmill, I’d have to run for three and a half hours, which is almost a full marathon, and that’s just not what Sunday afternoon football is supposed to be about. So the bar setup is best for sports. There are, of course, a few issues to worry about if you do all your TV watching at a bar. First of all, the no-cable savings I was so excited about gets eviscerated pretty quickly at a bar. My general feeling is that you have to order about one drink every half hour to maintain your good standing with a bartender. That adds up quickly, both financially and blood alcohol level-ly. If the point of not having a TV in your house is to become saintly and wholesome, I’m not sure that turning yourself into a raging alcoholic in exchange is the way to go.

Report From The Trenches – Day Twenty

So far so good, I think. After nearly three weeks of mostly TV-free living, I am pleased to report that I am still functioning, socially and emotionally. My apartment is a little more subdued than before – soothing NPR voices taking the place of hysterical furniture ads – and I’ve been reading slightly more. I haven’t discovered a cure for cancer or written the great American novel yet. It turns out there are plenty of other ways to zone out and be lazy, even without a TV. There’s a Far Side cartoon titled “in the days before TV” that shows a family sitting on the couch staring at the wall. I’ve done a little bit of that.

Surprisingly, the thing I miss most so far is commercials. Who’s winning the canned soup war? What crazy things are the duck and the caveman doing to sell insurance? If I order a set of knives right now, what other amazing item will be thrown in for free? Somehow, being pandered to by the hucksters makes me feel in touch. Without anyone trying to separate me from a dollar, how can I be sure I’m still a relevant human being?

My human interactions haven’t changed much but, at some level, I think that is just because I still have a long TV backlog to draw on. After the weather, TV is probably the most important component of white noise conversation. After I’ve fallen a full season behind in Lost and American Idol, what am I going to talk to people about in the hall at work? There’s always The Simpsons. That’s timeless, and I’ve got enough of a foundation there to last me for years. But it seems inevitable that, at some point, I’m going to have to admit that I don’t have a TV. And who knows what will happen once that’s out in the open. Will people shy away from me? Will they talk to me at all? Whisper about me behind my back? I imagine it will be like being a leper – people will try to be polite but won’t be able to help recoiling in terror.

Three weeks without a TV has been alright. I sure don’t miss the laugh track, but we’ll have to see how long this idiot can remain separated from his box.

1 comment:

Patrick Yerby said...

Dan - just to catch you up on the last 20 days (in case you missed it), we have a new President and the economy has completely collapsed. Besides that, it's status quo! Love the post.