Tuned Out

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I’ve blogged before about how a lot of my early love for learning came from the television shows I watched when I was very young. Children’s television staples like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood had a huge influence on me, of course, but even my love of early-1980’s game shows led to me wanting to understand this thing called “math” that was responsible for all the contestants getting happy or sad during those old weekday morning blocks on the major broadcast networks. Contrary to all the “television rots your brain” rhetoric I was hearing from my teachers and larger society, I always knew that television could, in the right contexts, be a tremendous tool for education, as long as it was used in authentic ways. I still believe that today, even if technology has made it practically impossible to keep track of all the media that my students may be watching in any given week, and I’m still working to find new ways to use “screen time,” whether the screens be large or small, to help my students understand the concepts I teach them.

You might think that this would naturally result in me being a television aficionado, but that hasn’t been the case for most of my life now. As I grew jaded of the saccharine eighties shows that blanketed the airwaves back in the day, I couldn’t find much scripted entertainment that held my interest (apart from Star Trek: The Next Generation, whose portrayal of a better world awaiting us in the future was one of the few things that kept me from losing my mind as I struggled to survive high school). That was when popular music started getting really good, and MTV even managed to not completely suck for a few years, so a lot of my television time was spent watching music videos, as well as the sports and sports-related broadcasts that I’d been watching for years. I’ve never been much of a film person, so the amount of scripted entertainment I was watching there really dwindled down to negligible levels by the mid-nineties.

I kept hearing other people’s opinions about television shows, of course, especially as I started spending more and more time on the Internet. When I first started hearing the term “prestige television” used to describe HBO’s The Sopranos, I knew that there was probably something going on with television that could be worth paying attention to, but even when I had access to HBO, I could never be bothered to watch the show. On top of a general apathy to scripted television that had developed over a few years there, this was also around the time that my life went through huge upheavals, including the house fire of 2001 and me going back to college shortly thereafter, so it wasn’t like I had much time to explore what was out there, back when “five hundred cable channels” felt like overkill.

To say that I threw myself into my studies back then would be a massive understatement, but my options were being limited as well. For about two years after we moved back into our house in 2002, my father refused to let us have cable or satellite television service, claiming that we should be “talking with each other” so we could be a “real family.” None of us wanted to talk with my father, of course, and he just kept zoning out on the three or four channels we could still get with those old-fashioned antennas back then. When he moved his office into an addition to the house in 2004, then he suddenly needed a high-speed cable modem for his work computers, so we got cable television service back, but I was just getting ready to start graduate school at that point and I knew that I wouldn’t have time to catch up on all those other new “prestige” television shows that I’d heard my classmates talk about. I watched a few episodes of the various Law and Order franchises in those two years I was stuck with rabbit ears, but that was more out of a sense of needing to watch something on television back then, for reasons that I still can’t put words to today.

Studying for graduate school ate up even more of my time than undergrad did, and needing to start my teaching career after I graduated sucked up even more of the time that I might have spent watching television there. I got hooked on My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic soon after it debuted, but to this day I’ve still seen only four of the series’ nine seasons, simply because the rigors of teaching and writing just didn’t leave time for much else. With the rise of video clips on social media sites, it felt like I was seeing just enough of popular television shows to be marginally conversant on them with my students, and even as I kept hearing about new television shows that sounded really good and/or really important, finding the time to even start watching them felt like a near-impossibility. I watched lots of prime time politics shows, but that was mostly to help me keep track of issues that might matter to my students, and/or stories that I could incorporate into my future class sessions.

I’ve never subscribed to a dedicated streaming video service, but I’ve been an Amazon Prime customer for most of the past ten years, so I’ve got access to Prime Video. I’ve used the service a little over the years, especially when I was teaching a film studies course a few semesters ago, but just as I started hearing about “prestige television” a little over twenty years ago, I’ve heard a lot about several high-quality shows on various streaming services over the past few years. I’ve now tried to watch a couple of them, but my attempts to do so have made me pretty uncomfortable, and it feels like a good part of that is simply because I haven’t kept close track of television shows, and their online successors, for a quarter of a century now. It almost feels like I’m having to learn what television is, on a very fundamental level, all over again.

This wouldn’t be so much of an issue for me if television were just another form of entertainment for me to consume (or not) as I see fit, but I still have some urges to explore the medium as a writer, and those urges have hit a peak recently as I’ve thought about ways of expressing myself and my struggles in various forms of fiction. I’ll probably always be a prose writer first and foremost, but I’ve written a couple of film screenplays over the years, and the ideas that have been kicking around my head lately feel like they’re suited best for episodic television/streaming. Given how little I know about modern forms of those media, though, I feel deeply unqualified to even begin writing screenplays for them, and even if I had the time to watch lots of old television and new streaming right now, I’ve got over twenty years to catch up on here, and I don’t know if I can even begin to comprehend a point at which I would feel ready to begin that writing.

Television and streaming can still be very useful tools for helping people, above and beyond their capacity to give our brains some of the relief they need from the difficulties of navigating our messed-up modern world. Maybe I was just always meant to read more books than watch more shows, but a strange part of me feels like I’m somehow not living a full life by eschewing television and streaming for so long. Even if I didn’t have this new project percolating in my mind, I think I’d still feel like I’m missing out on too much of what’s out there in modern life by not watching this stuff in more than the thirty-second clips my friends link to on social media. If I keep feeling like this is an insurmountable hurdle to me being able to express my ideas, though, then this could become something far more serious, so I really hope I can find a healthy way to include this stuff in my life here in the coming months.

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