Television - A Personal History

I spent hours drooling in front of the TV as a kid, but mostly I channel-surfed and didn't follow any particular show. It wasn't until I was close to graduating college that I began watching TV with purpose. Speedy web browsing had largely replaced TV viewing by that point, but the internet had also exposed me to loads of info and critical opinion about good stuff on TV. Eventually enough of this info entered my brain that a synapse fired, causing a thought to occur that went something like this: "Hey, I might want to check some of this stuff out." And so I did, and quickly discovered I was missing some great stuff.

First there was Rome, which had already ended its brief two-season run. Then came Arrested Development, whose three majestic seasons helped me get through my hastily written thesis. I stayed away away from new shows at first, instead focusing on successful shows that had aired for at least a season and often more. I watched the first three seasons of LOST, a show that quickly took hold of my heart, the summer before I left for Germany. While abroad I hit my stride, watching shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and Weeds in season-sized chunks

Young expats are wont to pack media-filled hard drives along with extra deodorant and favorite snacks, and I was no exception. When I left for my year in Rwanda, I had dozens of movies and several seasons of shows like Deadwood. There I realized that I'd much prefer watching two hours of a good TV show than most any movie. I binned my movie collection when I got home, never having watched most of it.

For a lot of people television is about reality shows, but for me it's all about scripted hour-long drama: Fringe, Mad Men, Dexter, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, and the best show I've seen, The WireThis is not to say I don't enjoy the more digestible half-hour stuff like Parks and Recreation, Archer, or the genre-dodging Louie, but they lack complex serialized storytelling, which is what TV does best. Long, skillful plotting takes viewers to deeper and unexpected places and gives characters time to fully fleshen. Payoffs can take years to realize, making them that much more delectable.

Not every show catches me, of course. Treme is usually well-done but often boring. Friday Night Lights was I'm sure good, but for some reason I stopped watching near the end of the first season and haven't missed it. Sadder to me are the shows I quite liked but were canceled after one season. Terriers had a decent resolution at least, but Rubicon's de facto series finale was unfortunately pretty awful.

For all the shows I've listed and love (and there's more),  I don't spend anywhere close to the American average of five hours a day watching TV. I don't watch sports, and I almost never watch live TV.  As the Nielsen data indicate (pdf), TV is the preferred timesuck for older folk, with teens watching half as much as retirees. I'm even worse than a Nielsen teen. I watch my few shows a week and I'm done, leaving my time be hoovered away by the internet. And honestly many shows don't require a huge time commitment. If I adopted the 7-hour-a-day habit of African-Americans, I could clear out the first seasons of shows like Sherlock Holmes, Downton Abbey, and The Walking Dead at a rate of one per day, and most premium-channel shows would take less than two days per season. It doesn't take long to see a lot of good shows.

Being abroad also gave me the habit of watching shows on my laptop, which I continue. Alan Sepinwall has written about being something of a TV-less TV critic. The internet has made sampling and following shows very easy, all while avoiding most commercials.  For me, it's a great time to be watching television, even when it's usually not on a television set.

Up Next: My favorite TV opening credits sequences, for which all of this was merely background.