There are hundreds of channels on television. And now, having moved into a new place with a new series of them, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. My ability to remember where a station can be found evaporated the moment basic cable packages hit sixty channels. In my new place, I have more than three hundred options, and I find that I spend more time surfing than actually watching anything. This restlessness compels me to treat whatever show I settle on with the attention span of a dachshund; I worry that there’s something better to watch somewhere else. The grass is always greener and so on and so forth.
With my dreams of instant televisual gratification squashed, I find myself pacing and fretting over light bulbs that need to be changed or garbage that needs to go out or clothing that needs to be arranged entirely by color. This feeling, particularly, is at the surface of my consciousness as I’ve got so many things to unpack and arrange, dump back in the desk drawers, etc. It’s always strange to see your stuff in new places, especially when your stuff is mixed in with someone else’s stuff, like a girl’s stuff. But everyone pretty much has the same kind of television to watch. This is true even when the channels have been shuffled.
Andy Warhol once remarked that everyone gets the same Coca-Cola. Rich people and poor people’s Coke all tastes the same. This concept holds true with television whether your TV set is flat-screen, high-definition or the one your parents bought in the eighties and kept in the basement until you went away to college and started whining about not having a TV in your dorm room. The shows you have to choose from are pretty much the same. The episode of Wipe Swap that I can watch on Wednesday evening in my new apartment is the same episode I could have watched in the old apartment.
Services like DVR or TiVo rearrange the everyone-has-the-same-Coke concept. You can pause, fast-forward or totally ignore the existence of shows you don’t want to watch. You might have that same episode of Wednesday’s Wipe Swap to watch, but you can watch it on Thursday if you don’t feel like watching it live. While we might still have the same Coke to drink, not everyone is drinking it out of similar bottles. Despite all of this pomp and circumstance, a crappy show seen in high definition is still a crappy show.
I suppose that’s my main quibble with TiVo: Having all of the shows you already know you like at your disposal puts you in a position to miss out on shows you might not know you like until you stumble across them. There’s something about channel surfing that appeals to short attention spans. I can size up the contents of a channel in the blink of an eye. It’s infuriating for anyone without control of the remote, but it makes me feel like I’m a discerning viewer. The truth of the matter is that I just like to push buttons.
Clicking past channel 200-and-something the other night, I came across a Wal-Mart commercial for the Seinfeld DVDs in which three friends sit around a coffee shop describing the idea of Seinfeld—ostensibly for Martians or the mentally disabled. “It’s a show about nothing,” one of them says. Notable clips from the show are included in the commercial: a Pez dispenser, some physical comedy from Kramer, and Elaine tossing and turning in a sofa bed.
In another Wal-Mart commercial, Darth Vader and Chewbacca hang around a couple’s house to shill the new Star Wars DVDs. Star Wars is already a heavily marketed franchise—I grew up with Ewok erasers and The Empire Strikes Back bedsheets—but seeing Chewbacca clowning around for Wal-Mart makes me feel a little sad. It’s the same feeling as when the stocky man in the plaid shirt does an awkward impersonation of Kramer entering Jerry’s apartment. It’s no better than I could do. Actually, I spent most of my teenage years perfecting pratfalls, so I think I could do it better. Seeing this man halfheartedly jerk about calls to mind a person wearing a back brace attempting to remove a bit of toilet paper caught on his shoe as he swipes up a copy of the Seinfeld DVD gift set from a Wal-Mart counter—I can’t help but feel like someone is looking down on me.
To answer the question you’re inevitably thinking: Yes, I am a lot of fun to spend an evening with watching television.
The absolute worst side effect of reality TV invading our television screens is that an already dumbed-down medium has become dumber, and even commercials, like these Wal-Mart commercials, which are little more than artifices to begin with, are telling us that we’re a step below mediocre. The Coca-Cola tastes the same, but the people drinking it couldn’t be more different.
Seinfeld is commonly regarded as the greatest sitcom ever to grace the airwaves. It was funny and caustic and not afraid to display its characters as detestable human beings every now and again. To find yourself relating to George is not the kind of thing that makes you feel like you’re a success. This is a man who built his life on a foundation of lies, ate pastries out of the garbage, slept underneath his desk and was caught masturbating by his mother. I don’t like George very much even though he makes me laugh. Not to squeeze blood from a stone, but watching some George-like oaf impersonate Kramer in a Wal-Mart does not make me want to rush out and buy the DVD.
My point is this: Whether it’s Coke or Wal-Mart or TV, it’s all junk food. Just because we’re all consuming the same material, it doesn’t mean that it has to look down on us so much. A movie or a drama might attempt to enrich, but a commercial seeks to dupe you into purchasing—or at least acknowledging the existence of—a product or a service. Entertainment is not an innocent thing when it’s combined with sponsorship. The laughs don’t come for free. Most importantly, when you’ve hit channel-surfing critical mass and are attempting to wrest entertainment out of the commercials, it’s a sure sign the TV needs to be turned off for the evening. There are still boxes to unpack.
Frank Smith lives in New York City and is a fiction writer, Iggy Pop fan and television know-it-all. TV Eye appears every second Wednesday.