14 March 2010

Once Upon a Time with Television

The morning after the Oscars is a unique event, akin to the Superbowl. Everyone is buzzing. The “office cooler” conversation is alive, albeit largely electronic these days: the internet is humming with the scoop and many are a-twitter. Well, those who actually watched rather than taped. Watch or not, pretty hard to escape the headlines and highlights, which may be enough.

Still, I am stunned when people tell me they didn’t watch because they've taped it instead, as this annual event has been a tradition for me as long as I can remember, truly, when at a very young age my mother permitted me to stay up and watch, although in those early years [and occasionally when my own children were young] I fell asleep too soon. My mother and my aunt Sophie, my cousins and I, curled up together in front of our tiny box and enjoyed the pageantry. I did the same during the Olympics, which I used to watch with my children. Presidential debates. The season finale of Mash and Dallas. Other momentous moments on television, like Obama’s victory, which may be the last television event shared by millions in the moment.

What happened to the shared collective consciousness of our television culture? Remember Thursday night farewells to John Boy? Sunday nights watching for the Archie Bunker mania? How many Friday nights of my young adult life did I stay home to watch Mary Tyler Moore, with excuses of hair washing or laundry, or now, as I recall, I was doing the laundry, as the basement facility in my NYC apartment building was empty on Friday nights while my fellow twenty somethings were out partying. {Yes, I was a geek, then as now] Speaking of twenty-somethings, that show was another must-see, breakthrough television that exposed every neurosis we now take for granted on TV. Speaking of which, remember must-see-TV?, NBC’s Thursday night line-up of Friends and followers, which my daughters hated to miss, despite the no-television on school nights rule [we made exceptions now and then.] Remember Roots?

For seven years I made sure to get to work a bit early on Thursday mornings for a passionate play-by-play with my buddy Michael on the previous night’s West Wing episode. Those characters became as close as friends, our representatives of ideal government and a longed for inegrity, missed terribly during off-season [remember off-season?] Now I get to watch them all over again on DVD but still long for those in-depth discussions the day after.

Not that I enjoy the fact that television has been for so long the centerpiece of American culture and the core of a national community. Nevertheless, the power of the medium is in the bringing together of huge numbers of disparate individuals to learn or enjoy or ponder or cheer or wonder about those things that seem to matter, and to provide the platform for discussion and perhaps enlightenment with friends, colleagues and our children. Now, we forego the discussion in favor of respecting the rights of tapers: we don’t want to spoil the ending do we?

I appreciate the convenience of a DVR. I get it. There are times I cannot enjoy an episode of one of the very few television shows I watch anymore and yes, as they are more and more available via internet, I can catch up on-line. I get it. People no longer wish to be tied to anything, much less a television show. We have reached the apotheosis of instant gratification. But what about that little bit of discipline that goes with making sure to finish homework or get off the phone [or the internet]in favor of the triumph of exquisite figure skating? The joy of watching the winner earn the win. The delight of weekly connection with interesting characters or the enlightenment of 60 Minutes. The extreme pleasure of the morning-after conversation. The joy of watching as a family in the company of all the other families.

Perhaps this is one reason why reality television is so popular – no one wants to miss who gets the axe or who scores the biggest loss. There are some things apparently we cannot wait for, still, but not much. Everything else is always within our reach, in our own time and space. Leaving us all just a bit further apart. And here I thought technology might bring us closer together. Foretells a future where we are all so much in our own space we share little or nothing. A little like reading blogs instead of the newspaper. Oops.