A Put That on Your Blog reader sent me this question:
PTOYB Reader: I’d like to see on your blog…your recommendations for television viewing–I know you said you enjoy television; this surprises me because . . . television gets a bad rap for being mind-numbing and making you dumber than you might already be. But clearly it hasn’t had that affect on you. So I’m just wondering what you watch and what you might recommend for best Friday night viewing. Maybe your top 5 favorite series. (I know I’m greedy!!!! But I’d love to know!!!!)
First, THANK YOU for sending in a question. I am delighted to answer anything I can.
In Defense of Television: An Impassioned Ode to The Idiot Box
Second, I owe television a lot. I would never have gotten into Harvard without television. You see, I was born in a small town of 500 people and went to K-8 in a five room elementary school which was unaccredited for some of the years I was there. I hated living there. Why? Because my family had a satellite dish and I had seen enough of the world on MTV, Comedy Central, and HBO to know that this little one horse town was not for me. I knew my brains were my ticket out of there, and I was a woman on a mission to board that train. Thank you, television.
I’ve also learned an extraordinary amount through watching television. Growing up, my brother and I used to watch cooking shows and building shows and things that would have been on “The Learning Chanel” back when any kind of learning made that network’s cut. Having seen almost every episode of ER, I can often impress my doctors and family in the health care field with my medical jargon. I can also understand what they’re talking about in their secret language. I speak semi-fluent medical. Let me also be clear that I learned much more about the American legal system from watching Law & Order and L&O SVU than I ever learned at Harvard. Stanford Law School helped me fill in the blanks and change some of the misconceptions I picked up from those shows, but really, television was my best preparation for law school. I’m not saying I was well prepared, I’m saying what prep I had came from TV.
Having a zillion hours of HGTV in the background whenever I have purchased a house, redecorated part of it, or done major renovations has been invaluable research. (Shout out to every incarnation of Sarah’s House. Though I usually skip to the reveal, I often go back to laugh at Tommy.) I have learned things that will save me many thousands of dollars if not hundreds of thousands. Mark my words, I will not use a realtor to buy or sell my next house. And not just because I’m convinced the right sole of my shoe is smarter than the entire cast of Million Dollar Listing combined, but because HGTV has shown me that our current realty system is utterly anachronistic in the information age. Realtors do have their uses in specific situations, but this topic is a post unto itself. I’m just saying, thank you HGTV.
My writing owes everything to television. What’s that? How so?! Isn’t writing about reading books? Yes and no. Most people don’t have time to read the way they did a hundred years ago. Often the majority of our sense of plot, metaphor, dialogue, pacing, and character development comes from what we watch, not read. I do read. But I have watched more movies by at least a power of 10, but probably more like 2 or 3 powers of 10 than I have ever read books. Growing up, we watched movies constantly. There was always a movie on in the background at my house. I often watched a movie while reading a book. In college I watched movies while listening to the radio and reading a book or writing a paper. I have seen most of the canonical Classics as well as a whole mountain of second tier films. Again, many of these I just have on in the background.
The 30 year old claim that watching a lot of television makes you dumb falls apart under scrutiny in so many ways. First, not all television is created equal. Just like literature, there are TV shows and channels that are incredibly informative and thought provoking, but yes, the majority of it probably has little worth other than entertainment and escapism. Secondly, television has to be viewed as one option amid other activities of varying quality. While middle class kids’ grades seem to be harmed by watching a lot of TV at the expense of interacting with their parents or participating in more worthy endeavors–or getting their homework done, poor kids (is that what you’d call me growing up?) actually realize a benefit from watching television which is often more stimulating than the disengaging alternatives.
For me there was never a question. I was going to do my homework. I would never have dreamed of missing an assignment to watch TV. I also had marvelous interactions with my mother when she wasn’t locked in her room reading a book. Even the way we watched television and movies was excellent preparation for analytical reasoning and comprehension. After a movie, my mom would ask us questions about it. We would retell as much of the film as we remembered highlighting the important points. And we would analyze it together. I read books the way I watched those movies as a kid. I remember details and put them together the way I did retelling them with my family. I owe my literary criticism skills in large part to movies and television. Would I have done better at Harvard if I hadn’t watched so many shows and movies before and during my time there? I don’t know. I really can’t complain though. It’s like pointing out a great singer who smokes. One person says, “Well it didn’t affect her adversely” and the other says “Just think how much better she could have been had she not smoked.”
Almost all of the smart people I know watch a fair amount of television. We also like to think if Shakespeare were around today he’d never have thought of the playhouse, but would have been snapped up to write an HBO series. It’s false to think that great people or even just great writers only read great literature. Dostoevsky, for example, was notoriously fond of a scandal rag. If I were to write, would I write for the page, the big screen or the silver screen–and would that choice necessarily make me a better or worse writer? Maybe I’m justifying television a bit too vociferously, but I honestly believe good television deserves to be defended. I am also aware that at some point principled non-participation in pop culture and subsequent obliviousness to the Zeitgeist can lead to self-imposed irrelevance.
I should also clarify that though I watch a lot of television, I don’t actually sit down and look at the vast majority of it. I listen to television. I have it on in the background. The number of shows I am willing to devote my full attention to is slim and dwindling. The number of shows I am willing to listen to while blogging, cooking, reading, surfing, working out, and cleaning is mind-boggling.
So mind-boggling in fact, that I feel I’m wasting valuable time. I have a new initiative to listen to free lectures from top universities online for part of that time I would have spent listening to TV.
Five Shows Worth Unitasking (and a host of honorable mentions)
Now on to that list. Please insert every possible caveat about how these shows don’t represent my world view or a complete list of my interests or my inner most psyche or the best shows on television (although I must say my taste is woefully mainstream in that I tend to agree with the Emmys on what’s worth watching).
Fluffy going for tea at the Abbey before this whole business with the Titanic.
1. Best Drama – Downton Abbey
This is one of the most compelling and informative shows I’ve ever seen. The portrayal of life in that era is lush and minutely detailed. The history lessons are seamlessly woven into the addictively written plot lines. Somehow the show manages to reveal the complexities of all the characters, even redeeming the most unsavory of villains with Herculean twists of plot, while still maintaining a certain moral compass and optimism that is refreshing in a sea of anti-heroes and grit for grit’s sake. Season One of Downton Abbey is truly must-see TV. Like many of the BBC Masterpiece productions, this series is somewhere between literature and television.
The carriage we took past 30 Rockefeller when the boys were in utero.
2. Best Sitcom – 30 Rock
The writing in 30 Rock is unmistakably smart and witty, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a nerd like Tina Fey. The characters are iconic and lovable, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a nerd like Liz Lemon. With 30 Rock, you’re almost guaranteed a good laugh, not just the bad laughs of sitcoms that substitute sarcasm or witless put-downs for humor and inflate these “jokes” with a laugh track. Sure there’s some broad humor, but there’s always some gratifying little gems in the banter. Kent would want me to put Arrested Development on here and The Simpsons (despite some unforgivably lame meta/self-referential writing in the middle seasons), and it’s true that the wit there is just as good. Arrested Development is also master of the long gag, the set up for a climactic joke that takes an entire episode to unfold in the cleverest possible way, such as the rock, paper, scissors episode. Boom! What a payoff. Arrested Development is a bit too crass for me, though. The Office is also wonderful comedic writing, though I’ve never been able to fully surrender to this new humor of painful awkwardness. I prefer wit. Whenever Kent and I get on a “Project Laugher” kick and consciously decide to spurn our favorite dramas in favor of a few more laughs, 30 Rock seasons 1 and 2, are a staple.
Haute Couture that Momma Bear made from the original costume from Chasing Fireflies. I took it in 2 sizes, added the balloon-bustle, and bows, removed the tulle overlay, and styled her at the Garnier hair studio and the Loreal Paris make up room–and used the Lord & Taylor accesssory wall thoughtfully.
3. Best Reality Competition – Project Runway
I have been watching reality television since MTV’s first season of The Real World. I was on board for the first season of American Idol (voted many hundreds of times on my corded home phone for my girl, Kelly) and the first season of The Bachelor. I have seen almost every season of Project Runway, Top Chef, American Idol, SYTYCD, and others. I’m giving the honor to Project Runway because quite subjectively I love fashion. Top Chef, The Amazing Race and Project Runway all have marvelously clever challenges and have mastered the art of casting a kettle of characters each season. The quality among those three is more consistent than any of the others I’ve watched/fast-forwarded through.
Speaking of which, I almost never watch every minute of a reality show. I fast forward through the majority of them and skip to the reveal. I chose those three (Top Chef, The Amazing Race, and Project Runway) because to me they have the highest ratio of watchable TV to useless fast-forwarding time. Something as loose and flabby (get it?) as The Biggest Loser with about 85% fluff and repetition and manufactured cliffhangers, gets on my nerves too much. I still fast forward through a lot of those top three, but not nearly as much as the others.
Fluffy and Peppers making their way through the jungle on a surprisingly undeserted island.
4. Best Action Drama – Lost, Season One
That first season was a gift to television. The suspense! The mystery! The complexity! The endless possibility for close reading of symbolic details and the open-ended philosophical questions. If only they had been given a strict 4 season mandate so that they wouldn’t have spent so much time meandering into pointless subplots and sideplots and fakeplots over the next 20 seasons. We also enjoyed season one of Prison Break, and season one of Heroes. With American television, you have to be willing to break up with shows after the good times are gone and just read the spoilers for the other seasons. I am positive that there are a lot of HBO Dramas that should included in this category, but honestly, they are mostly too gritty for my delicate feminine sensibilities. Sorry, I know I’m missing out.
Salty and Peppers in their “Don Drapers”.
5. Best Chain-smoking, Self-Loathing-Dirt-Bag-with-a-Heart-of-Some-Precious-Metal, Period Drama – Mad Men
I have seen 4 and a half seasons of Mad Men, but I’m not sure that I like it. After almost every episode, I consider chucking it in the garbage. I’ve had to take two major breaks from it because it had me too depressed (this from the Russian Lit major, let’s recall). It is so cynical, so slow, so morally disappointing.
Yet I am powerless to deny the quality of its workmanship. The sets, costumes and feel of the show are chic beyond all chicness. The writing is overtly literary and episodic. The episodes are written in short-story form with various plots and subplots exploring a common theme, often father-child relationships, or adolescent arrested development (that’s a real thing), or new versus old. Each episode is a capsule of post-modern-ish reflection that often ends with a shot of one of the characters staring off into the distance just thinking about what is happening–the same way you and I will be staring off and thinking about that DARNED frustrating episode for way too long after the credits have run.
Mad Men especially in the first and second season is paced entirely differently than anything I’ve seen on television. They skip over almost all the obvious emotionally fraught moments like weddings and births, but they’ll spend 5 full minutes of your time capturing the every mundane detail of leaving a roadside picnic. It’s at once purposely maddening, and undeniably engrossing. I love a good hero with a tragic flaw, don’t you? But to have redemption dangled and snatched away this many times is too much, Mad Men. If you appreciate and love Gone With the Wind, if you can throw your shoes in disgust at Scarlet in one chapter and then climb right back into the buggy beside her with some form of begrudging respect and undeniable attraction, then you will probably like Mad Men.
I probably like it. I can’t tell. It’s just so frigging well-made, though.
Now let me throw that question right back at you, dear readers. What do you watch and why? I mean, we’ve all been unwittingly sucked into an entire marathon of America’s Next Top Model or reality soap operas like Vanderpump Rules and Real Housewives of Whereever from time to time, but what is your top tier of shows that you think someone like me ought to try watching?