Less Is More (Sort Of)
Living Without a TV
My father, on occasion, put his foot through our family’s television set. He didn’t trip on a cord, or mistakenly stumble on his way to the kitchen—he kicked the console like a stuck door: hard, with explosive intent. He’d knock it onto the carpet or try to smash in the screen. His kids had been watching for too long and this was his way of stopping the show. I can’t remember if the set was left in splinters or not—Dad did this more than once, but when I was much younger, and the surviving memory is poor. (He kicked in my boom box at some point, reducing it to a broken, lap-sized piece of plastic art; that I remember well.) Dad wasn’t a violent man, but he resented television and our generation’s unthinking attraction to it: our habit of treating it like a member of the family, needing its presence at the dinner table, switching it on when entering a room, talking over its chatter as if the noise were inevitable, as if we felt that without its presence some vital element was missing.
Dad had been a combat infantryman, a trial lawyer and an oddball-car enthusiast. On his weekends, he loved nothing more than to climb into a waxed Dodge Imperial and drive like hell across three counties just to find a good gas station. Life’s graces were to be reached with an agreeable nature, some curiosity and a strong will: three things that atrophied while sitting and watching situation comedies. Dad’s philosophy never quite reached me. I was a kid and loved afternoon TV like I loved Kit Kat bars or my own bike. I’d learned long before to switch the channel—manually, on a plastic dial—from 4 to 13 whenever I heard Dad coming home from work, thereby creating the impression that I hadn’t been watching cheap cartoons all afternoon but the quiet sincerity of PBS:
“What the hell is this?” he’d ask, appearing with a briefcase.
He was quiet. “Then what?”
“Tony Brown’s Journal.”
If our Dad ruined the TV, we knew that in a few months he’d come around and buy another one. He approved of PBS and those middlebrow network shows from the era I’ve come to know as the Age of the Fine Miniseries. He tacitly endorsed television when he wasn’t kicking the shit out of it. Now, when I visit my older brothers, men in their forties with kids of their own, they’re almost invariably sitting together on their asses in front of an expensive television. My brothers own big grey plasma things, four feet across, wired with Nintendo PS 24s and disc players and digital sound—these sets could withstand most weather conditions, let alone a solid kick—and all I can do is interpret their presence in our family’s lives as revenge against Dad.
Dear old TV-hating Dad. He would be pleased that for several months now—completely by accident—I’ve been living without TV. I have a set, but it doesn’t work. There’s no cable and no rabbit-ear reception, so I can’t watch a thing. And I tend to keep this information relatively quiet.
Claiming to live without TV is an odd thing to do. It’s a badge of neither honour nor stupidity, but something softer and less defined. TV’s absence can be seen as a kind of retro fashion, but if you claim in mixed company not to own a TV, you are mostly regarded as pompous or flaky or kind of a dick. You may as well be sitting and sniffing in judgement on everyone else’s choice of wallpaper. At this point in our accelerated culture, not watching TV seems to make a person both snobby and uninformed. If you ask someone if he saw last night’s Daily Show and he says, “I don’t own a television,” it’s hard not to see that person as at least a killjoy, and moderately stupid besides.
For the sake of argument, however, consider how this past election did its damnedest to convince normal people to never, ever watch television again. I was so happy not to have to watch the pundits, their relentless explication, the forecasts, the naked and lustful aspirations to a miserable level of dignity, the loud assortment of non-facts, the smarmy fake detachment, the fucking theme music, the jabbering, the feral arguments, the hair, the faces, the clothes, the noise, the noise. The horrific pounding of a single election can convince you that the media—especially the TV segment—has somehow made itself into a coherent and potent force: an army of occupation. Most everything we trade in the markets of popular culture (and that includes our politics, such as they are) was created with the help of the army’s constant presence. It’s folly to suggest that we’ve escaped it. This is what Dad foresaw twenty years ago and was working overtime to defeat, even to the point of violence. And still I have this feeling that once the election shock subsides, once the fatalistic quiet of a new year settles in, once I start falling asleep at nine PM, I’ll probably revert to childhood and miss the TV’s occupation, if I’m not missing it already (thereby proving the existence of Stockholm Syndrome).
I mean, shit. I haven’t been able to see any of the new reality farragos, or that one called Lost, or Jack & Bobby, the returning seasons of 24 and The OC or anything after Rory went to college on Gilmore Girls. I totally skipped out on Arrested Development just when it was getting great. I sometimes miss William Petersen. Ali G. Allison Janney and Richard Schiff and Martin Sheen wearing a Windsor knot. And the show on the WB with the pretty high school kids who will grow up to live in Metropolis. Or the semi-new one featuring a bearded Treat Williams. And Dave Chappelle, my God. I haven’t seen Jon Stewart in what feels like years. I realize I’ll have to get someone to record season six of The Sopranos and season two of Deadwood. In the meantime, the Toshiba nineteen-inch on top of my dresser will just sort of stare back when I look at it, reflecting blackness and the distorted shape of a grown man sitting on a bed, slightly confused, possibly drifting.
An elderly man who lives up the street from me is in the same position and doesn’t feel he’s missing a thing. His TV isn’t hooked up to anything but a DVD player, and he and his wife occasionally rent movies when the two of them are sick of reading Proust. During the World Series playoffs, he sat in his kitchen with a cup of tea listening to the whole white-knuckle narrative on the radio, just like when he was a kid, and thought it a vast improvement over regular coverage. Just last week—not believing in coincidences—I met a young woman who lives upstate on a communal farm called the Brudderhof, a place like the Amish enclaves, without much electricity, let alone television. She was probably the most learned person I’ve ever met, almost completely devoid of vanity, and she hadn’t a clue who Anna Nicole was. Talking with her, I remembered a writer I met once whose four children had each been home-schooled, without so much as access to TV; at age twelve, these kids read Howard Zinn and Cervantes with a pleasure almost completely inaccessible to people who teach those writers for a living.
I often think that maybe Dad wanted his children to reach this sort of deep, freaky concentration—a connection with a more focused self, sharply desirous and unafraid—so that when the time came for us to be loosed into the world, we’d know more clearly our natures, curiosities and wills. We would have longer attention spans. We would not compare people we met to people in a glib parallel reality. We would be knowledgeable about the physical world, at least a little. We wouldn’t give a shit about what 75 percent of adolescents normally give a shit about. And we would not have built storehouses of memory serving no other purpose than the ability to recall names that define trivia, names like Bronson Pinchot and Scott Baio. And you know what? The next time I play Trivial Pursuit—which I might do more of soon, now that the TV is gone—I’ll get all the ones dealing with early-eighties sitcom stars and flub something obvious about Shakespeare or the Council of Trent.
But I’d like, just for a bit longer, to keep following Dad’s example. Without a TV, the days and nights are quieter, more receptive to other sounds. I exercise more, out of boredom. I read novels straight through, as opposed to the piecemeal method of reading before the bedside lamp gets turned off. I write letters. I cook things. When people visit, they have to sit and chat since we’re not going to do anything else. I write. And I write this very list of justifications with more self-consciousness than I could have imagined, since I’d like to do all these things of my own free will, with an idiot box fully operational in the corner. It’d be what Dad actually taught. The thing is, following Dad’s example means following Dad all the way through adulthood to retirement, where at age sixty-eight the old man could be found in the middle of the afternoon on a recliner, lost in the hours watching Dr. Phil.
“What the hell is this?” I’d ask.
“It’s Phil McGraw,” he’d say. “He’s a lifestyle coach.”
His eyebrows raised importantly on each word. He’d keep watching, letting me know he enjoyed the hell out of TV now that it was just too ridiculous, too insanely stupid to bother kicking in. To Dad, less was often more. Watching him watch Dr. Phil, it seemed to me that Dad could not reduce his lifestyle any further than this. This was less. He taught hundreds upon thousands of lessons to his children, and ten years from now I’d like to own a 1973 Dodge Imperial, but meanwhile, this lesson—as clear as static—will do.
This edition of TV Eye is brought to you by guest columnist Paul Winner. Be sure to check out Frank Smith's take on The Score, Paul's regular column, posted yesterday. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.