I am not the New Year’s Resolution type, but I started off this year with a nagging feeling that I had to do something about my hang-ups with television. I obsessively watch and check off to-do lists of films because film is what interests me and because they’re relatively easy to list and check off. I’m slower with TV because it’s very specifically not easy to list and check off, and because it’s easy to put off until later since it can (faultily) feel by nature to be less essential to the history of the moving image. Obviously I’ve watched an ass load of television anyway; I grew up on cartoons as much as if not moreso than any given nerd, and spent plenty of nights huddled with my parents and brothers watching Diagnosis: Murder and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, but it never really kicked into a scholarly overdrive the way it did with movies, and the recent shift into the latest of many “Golden Ages of Television,” along with the advent of on-demand entertainment, has actually just made TV more daunting and hard to navigate than ever. It’s admittedly an incredibly stupid problem to have, but I know other pop culture addicts are dealing with it. We are a little bit afraid of TV, and I’m sure it mostly comes down to two reasons. One is that it’s so accessible that it doesn’t look finite anymore. Right before Netflix Instant and Hulu came along, I might have thrown away a night or six watching a CSI marathon on Spike. It was a waste of time, but it was based on a decision to waste time filtered through what was available to do, and it ended when the marathon did or when I fell asleep. Now watching a chain of CSI means pulling it up on a menu and finding a starting point. It’s a more conscious decision, and if you’re going to make a decision, you might as well make a good one. Choosing a movie is easy. Choosing a TV show means you have to define your own entry and exit point. And of course, the other, bigger problem is that exploring those exit points means acknowledging that TV spreads beyond the horizon in every direction. There are a billion episodes of everything, and it feels like you’re supposed to watch all of them. Obviously that’s a feeling bred by the current breed of high-grade programs with one big, serialized arc, shows like The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica. Since that type of programming has done so well over the last decade, there’s more drop-everything, start-at-the-beginning shows each year. At what point does the number of hours of must-see TV exceed the hours you have to waste? Right now everyone is supposed to be watching Breaking Bad and Mad Men but 15 years ago it was Oz and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and everything you miss goes on an insurmountable catch-up list constantly tweaked with “You’ve gotta watch that”s. Of course, there’s some logic built in that helps you inherently know to approach The Wire differently than you would approach something like South Park, but that mindset does bleed over and start to make episodes of even the most continuity-light shows feels like part of a larger whole, which puts an invisible hourglass over anything you even consider watching. It makes it hard to start watching almost anything – it’s telling that the only shows I watch somewhat religiously are either quick, limited runs like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Eastbound and Down, or shows that require the least commitment, like 30 Rock and Adventure Time. I have no idea at any time what season or episode Adventure Time is up to because it’s not really important to the show. I just watch random episodes of it whenever I want, and it feels like pure American freedom.
I think what probably broke me was Lost, as it will probably break legions of our TV viewers long into the future. Lost sucked my wife and I in when it was somewhere around the fourth or fifth season, after mostly avoiding it for all the reasons above. We dropped everything, started from the beginning, and truthfully had a pretty great time with it. But it was a massive time suck in which we barely watched anything else, and when it failed to satisfyingly tie up any of the threads that pulled us in, I felt resentful towards it immediately. James Adomian has a great little stand-up bit about people always telling him to watch Lost, that it’s like asking someone to watch 100 movies. I found that I couldn’t recommend Lost to people once it was over, even though I mostly really enjoyed it, because it’s 100 movies long. My positive memories of the show are of discovering great characters and of the general look and feel of the show, i.e. Indiana Jones meets Survivor. I immediately started wishing I could recommend just enough episodes to get across that feeling of “This is what Lost is like.” Then I realized there are a hundred other shows that I’ve been avoiding for being 100 movies long (or even just 10) that I wouldn’t mind getting that same feeling for. Clearly I had to break my predilection for TV completism, even if that meant breaking up shows that were obviously designed to be watched exactly that way. I was determined to watch less of more television.
I started making episode lists based on a number of practical and personal factors. Which are the most important? Which had the most viewers? Are any written or directed by someone I’m a fan of? Who are the special guests? Did any win awards? Which are the personal favorites of fans of the show? Which are the best-remembered over time, good or bad? Do any just sound more like my bag of story than others? What cross-section of episodes will give a full view of what the show is like? Can I get away with watching just one? Soon I was making episode lists for every show I could think of, quickly using it as a way to access some classics going back to the beginning of the medium, and then I started watching a couple. With all the tools of the Internet that previously made these shows a little more foreboding, I can now quickly and easily research them and watch my selections and leave them before morning without ever calling again. So far, it feels great. It’s great to set a manageable goal and finish it one night later, and be able to say, “Yes, I have seen some of that program, and it was okay. I have sliced up the big, mandatory steak of television into bite-size, optional pieces, and I feel great about it!” Most people I’ve talked to about it have not reacted favorably, maybe because they are still controlled by a fear of television, or maybe because I keep insisting on using Breaking Bad as an example, and people take that show seriously as hell right now. I’m not necessarily saying I would episode-list Breaking Bad — in fact, I’m almost sure I won’t, since it’s getting unusually high marks and is probably the most specifically serialized show on the air right now, and because I already like what I’ve seen of it — but I still like it as an example because it’s the kind of show you know you should start watching if you only had the time, and consequently might not watch for years or ever. Tell a Breaking Bad fan that you started watching around the third season, or that you try to watch it if you happen to be home the night it’s on. They will go ballistic. But again, it’s just the latest in an endless chain of shows that people go ballistic for. What about The Shield? It’s only been a few years since The Shield, and it already feels like the vaguest shadow of the cultural icon it felt like when it was on the air. I don’t doubt that it’s a fantastic show, but people like me who originally put it off while it was popular because we wanted to have the proper time to watch it in full are probably ten times less likely to watch it each year it moves past its watercooler relevance, mainly because now there’s Breaking Bad to think about. So if I can just sample the damn thing, the way people watched almost everything not all that long ago, then I can at least get the cut of its jib within this decade instead of never watching any of it. The important, obvious thing about this project is that if I watch a few episodes of something and really love it, it’s obviously something I’m going to come back to for more. But that doesn’t seem to stop people from looking at me like I’m announcing plans to leave half a kindergarten in a lake somewhere when I talk about my plans to watch, say, the third, twelfth, and last episode of a show they enjoyed. Anyway, I’ll be documenting my intake so I can remember what I’ve been watching, so we’ll see how it goes. It’s possible that it’s a stupid idea and that I’ll waste a lot of time with my only takeaway being a vague and distorted knowledge of a thousand useless subjects, but I suspect it will round out my ongoing self-guided film education with a fuller picture of multimedia as a larger whole, and I also think it will be fun and useful in a lot of unexpected ways.