The Television of Others

Every Sunday, a certain coworker asks me if I want him to put on some music. How to say? I would rather work in silence than listen to what he puts on, or endure the embarassment of my own taste broadcast over the speakers. I can't resist his enthusiasm, though. I smile and assent. For a while the brightening of novelty takes over. I relax as one does in a stranger's home, furnished in a comfort your own always lacks. One morning, he puts on Sneaker Pimps, whose fire he says the entirety of popular music since has stolen. He puts on Radiohead (another shameless Sneaker Pimp imitator). In the middle of 'Paranoid Android', whose suicidal discord seemed something other than empty when I was sixteen, I squeak "could we listen to something, oh, I don't know, how about just the BBC?" "Are you sure?" He asks, as if I'm the Commander in Chief ordering retribitory nuclear strikes. Not far from the truth.

Let us admit that there is very little in this world to do with guests, when conversation runs out, but watch television. Parlor games like Cards Against Humanity have a nasty taste of desperation. And that particular game takes it even further by having an aesthetic of transgression, that people polite enough to play games at a party (me for instance) need badly. But it's someone else's transgression; everyone can be on the same side of the same political incorrectness, all laugh. Computer games on the other hand seem to divide people into the private worlds on seperate screens, but my dilemma with them is the opposite. They don't give me enough internal wiggle room. They have a fishing line hooked to your reptilian brain. Watching something together makes connecting totally optional. If it works it works, if not, there's nothing so unpleasant about living in your head in the presence of someone else living in theirs, in front of a screen.

That said, watching someone else's show is as much of an encounter of the third kind as cooking with them.

Once a friend staged a whole party around watching Pushing Daisies. After my curiousity had been worn down by its unrelenting preciousness, I was indignant that she presumed everyone would be amenable to her television comfort food. But in retrospect I admire her boldness. Being the one who says yes to everyone else's choices leaves me free to judge. To convince people that not liking your tastes is simply tasteless, is to offer a whole new social possibility. It's also a preemptive form of self-defense, on which mine depends. What was remarkable about that Pushing Daisies party was that almost everyone came away enjoying the show, or at least saying so. Whether they went home and kept watching it was not the point. If the goal is something other than taste, then drawing people into this kind of common affection is laudable, because it's winter mostly.

Getting along with people with less charisma--or if you prefer, less well-developed ways of keeping people away--is rougher terrain. I can't tell people with any ring of conviction that they ought to watch something. And the friends with whom I fall into this cold relation assume, correctly, that I won't like whatever they want to watch.

As a teenager I heard a voice, or an echo. I'm not sure if it said anything, but I could hear it over my own thoughts, yelling them in a mocking tone. It insinuated itself most reliably when I worked in the dark room. It was impossible to notice its arrival, only to reflect on its presence once it was already fully entrenched. Lacking any psychological vocabulary, I had no idea if anyone else experienced this voice or the accompanying sensation of inhabiting oneself from a great distance. I didn't know what to make of how it was terrifying when present and yet missed when absent. As if just one more visitation would reveal all its mystery to me.

I can't help myself: I'm curious, which is to say I like feeling victimized by other people's taste. It's the only indication I have that I have critical faculties. This is the conclusion that psychology draws: it's all my fault. I I am victim to my own contracdictory desires. There is nothing else going on.

What are they doing outside? How could the leaves possibly need that much blowing? Why have I watched an entire season of Deep Space Nine, even though I had to fast-forward through half of most episodes?

It has come to a friend and I's attention that character (and sometimes characters) must be sacrificed to move plot. A true character, by this definition, will have lost all hope. They are inert, but uncompromised.

Every time I venture into the territory of someone else's television, I feel inertia asserting itself. It's an interesting journey, for an episode, but I just want to go home. Increasingly there is only someone else's television.

In my early twenties, cooking together was a common and acceptable form of socializing. There were always disagreements, but in college we all felt we were interlopers in our own homes. The friction between us slipped by, which seems astonishing now.

At no time is the sense of disorientation of entering someone else's home more acute than childhood spent in a more or less stable home. I easily accepted and even adopted other families' ways of doing things, but it felt uncanny, much more than weird foreheads.

But it's senseless to treat watching others' shows as just one Other. There are so many species. Watching television with couples is a whole clade that I scorn to the same heavy proportion that, as I approach thirty, it has become the dominant way to spend time with anyone. But if I can let go of the unique irritation of other couple's tension, it's a unique entertainment. As people who haven't given up, we must instrumentalize everything.

It's usually false cynicism to think of the parts of the couple as pretending. (I'm reprimanding myself; you probably already know better.) I have great respect for anyone who really is pretending. That's hearing the voice but feeling no despair. Sociopathy and healthy are the same pie in the sky. For the rest of us, I think it's more accurate to say that someone is trying not to be disinterested. The cozy aspect of joining and not being part of the couple is that it's easy to be interested as a tourist. I can watch one episode of anything. And because lately I find my interest in every show wanes quickly, the more reliable pleasure is constructing criticism for the duration of an episode. Why else could Carrie Matthieson keep up surveillance on Brody? She needed to establish his guilt. (In this season, which I haven't been able to watch, she seems to need to establish her own guilt in the presence of her victim.)

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a fascinating object to behold polite company beholding. Almost half an episode passed in silence and fidgeting. Nobody laughed. It was like being a fly on the wall of the crash pad of the worst bros ever. (And not in the Mindy Project way of tireless derision.) Since I wasn't on the show and therefore not implicated, there was no reason to engage in uncomfortable placating laughter. The terrifying truth may be that nobody would have said anything or turned it off had there not been a scapegoat: one of their friends, not present, had recommended it.

Watching a friend's recommendation is a different beast, less erratic. I can hate a show but understand or even feel envious of how much they enjoy it. I like their take on it, but not it. Much how I feel about Elif Batuman and Gone, Girl. To be honest there are very few things I like better than other's takes on them. The point to me is a legible mind, whether it's an artist's, a critic's, a friend's, or my own. Without this, it's just treading water. (This is wrong of course, I'm quite happy with fascinating incoherence.)

Sometimes people invite me to join them in their water-treading shows. (This is more courageous than I could ever be. I only ever recommend shows I feel cool for watching.) I want to be delicate about these. Elementary is quite a boring show, but I can imagine its rhythms and modest emotional arcs being like a bowl of porridge, keeping the walls of the digestive tract from contacting. I used to watch Castle and Bones. I would include House, but House's angst, while leavened by the supporting characters, puts it far from Elementary's Holmes on the emotional spectrum. Now I watch british panel shows, which are time passing in mostly droll company.

That's one distiction between shows that I binge on: addictive versus comforting. Addictive shows draw me in by being as depressed as I am. It's most effective to dig such dark pits slowly. The Danish The Killing and Borgen do their work, er, glacially, carving spacious valleys of interior turmoil. Battlestar Galactica is not nearly as patient or careful, but all the same, four seasons later I'm caught up in a madness unimaginable in the pilot. Addictive shows don't have to be atmospherically dark. Veep is a comedy as depressive as they come, believing basically in the futility of politics.

Couples on television are more exciting than couples in life, but I'm a tourist of both. Indeed, tracking the slow explosion of a marriage seems to be one of television's major passions these days. How to Get Away with Murder gives us a wife's agony and a (murderer) husband's death. The Americans shows us how little the premise of marriage changes when it's in service for the motherland. Homeland's first season made a dish of fidelity three ways. All of which makes me suspect the sights are sightseeing. The dog at the house I'm staying at has stopped seeing me as a stranger. Now she paws at me to play with her. I'm a viable human being, or in other words a viable toy.

18 December 2014