Middle of winter, curled up on the couch with a cuppa and a cat, watching the telly, its glow outdoing the heat-pump on the comfort front.
Most living rooms are orientated to face the television. We sit around it like we once did the hearth, getting our funny bone tickled, our prefrontal cortex stimulated, our heart strings plucked. We are entertained, informed, educated from the sanctuary of our settee. Connected to the Big Bad World without venturing into it through the ‘idiot box’, the ‘goggle box’, or just ‘the box’. The tube too, way before YouTube was even a glint in Google’s eye.
Like Roald Dahl’s Mike Teevee, we are swallowed up by its all-absorbing nature. It gives us solace and the illusion we are learning something, or doing something, without moving a muscle or engaging a brain cell. Part meditation, part medication: it soothes and sedates us, holds us still and tells us, “It’s all going to be alright.”
Our taste in telly defines us better than Myers-Briggs: Married at First Sight in one quadrant, Ozark, Glow and Only Fools and Horses in the others. We connect with strangers over which House we back – Team Daenerys – with the whole western world split between those who have seen all of Game of Thrones and those who have no idea who John Snow even is. Those people who understand the subtext of Lost, those who never will. Those who understand that Homer is the most astute social commentator the world will ever know and those who think I’m referencing The Odyssey.
Like food and sex, different types suit different moods, needs, life-stages. There’s junk TV (think Bling Empire), healthy TV (ahhh, The Durrells), worthy TV (I salute you Louis Theroux), secret indulgences (Bridgerton). There’s TV that plays with your mind, seen The OA? Meta TV that plays with the tropes of TV: WandaVision’s nod to The Brady Bunch, Full House, Modern Family, flipping through nostalgic TV snapshots from our formative years. There’s telly too that shakes you up, Black Mirror, and cracks you up, White Lotus. Totally different; equally satisfying.
As with politics and religion, we are raised on our parents’ television choices. My foundations are built on Murder She Wrote and Open All Hours. My lullaby, the theme tune to Coronation St. I raised my first baby on Eastenders every weeknight then Omnibus on Sunday. My youngest child knows Downton Abbey’s Crawleys better than our own family. I’m avoiding having conversations with my almost-grownup daughter by watching Girls, leaving discussions of body image, sexual health, social hygiene and the dangers of drugs to the TV. I’m trying to ignore the fact she’s already seen Euphoria, and all of Sex Education (twice), believing Girls to be a more wholesome way to learn about adulting…not quite Anne with an E but not Skins either.
TV can test boundaries, ideals, biases. Atlanta, Fleabag and Flowers did more to wake me up than the News at Six ever will. For today’s young women, The Handmaid’s Tale is a way into the rights and plights of the sisterhood like the novel of the same name was for me at 16.
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. When West Wing was finally over I could filibuster with the best of them. By the time Breaking Bad broke it off I was screaming for it to stop. Getting to the end of Shameless was harder than finishing my degree.
My own strain of Long Covid was probably brought on by spending my isolation bingeing The Wire…all 60 episodes, one of them clocking in at 93 minutes. Not since watching Mad Men in a month have I felt such a sense of achievement. Telly’s infectious. Mad Men saw me sassing like Joan and dressing like Peggy; The Wire had me cussing like a mo-fo.
Television trivia, on its own a whole subset of time-wasting, tells us even though you can recount favourite Fawlty Towers faux-pas – bellowing “Don’t Mention the War” over and over – for days, it would only take six hours to watch the whole series. Whereas, to watch M*A*S*H in its entirety would take four times longer than the war it depicts did.
Good TV stays with us, and we stay with good TV. We’re hooked on The Tube.
The tougher life gets outside The Box, the more we live inside of it. We root for the good guys, scream at the baddies and judge our favourites like we judge our BFFs. We cry when they die (or when a season ends in a cliff-hanger then doesn’t get renewed by the network so we never find out what happened to the hero (damn you Santa Clarita Diet!)).
When the writers get it right and a show ends with a finale that’s resolved, satisfying and tuned in to the tone of the rest of the series, that’s bliss.
Thank you Orange is the New Black, thank you Killing Eve, thank you After Life. With those shows, you know that’s it. Those characters are gone forever. But the makers who have taken you on that ride place you gently back on your feet in the real world, and remind you: it’s just TV, and it’s time to turn it off and get some sleep.
All shows mentioned in this column are faves, but here’s five I’m currently watching and recommend:
We Are Who We Are
Master of None (Season 2)