A Short Personal History of Television

It's Doctor Who season again. I don't even know why I like Doctor Who. I never know why I like television shows. My taste is arbitrary and often deliberately contrary: I say I like both The Wire and Gossip Girl but I'm never sure if what I really like is simply the juxtaposition, if what I really want to do is simply confuse people into thinking I'm more interesting than I am (if you look closely, this post is really all about me trying to appear a certain way). Mostly I try to avoid TV. One summer in Boston I sublet a little studio apartment near Fenway Park and one of its most prominent features was this giant flatscreen TV. I didn't have very many friends who were also in the city that summer and my boyfriend was living with his parents in the suburbs and I had a retail job that made my feet and my back ache, and most evenings I would just come home and watch TV. I mean, this object took up a lot of space, I felt I had to use it, I felt the apartment demanded that I be the sort of person who would use it. To be honest, I sort of felt like the whole city demanded I be the sort of person who would use a flatscreen TV. You know, after a long day at the office and a run along the river (training for the marathon, obviously), you would come home and cook dinner and sit in front of the TV. I don't know why I have this overwhelming impression of Boston, of what my life there could have been, especially since later, when I moved off campus for the first time, I didn't have a TV at all, but that summer I watched a lot of TV.

I watched cooking shows. I never cooked myself (I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, heated up frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's to have with rice and soy sauce, occasionally very loosely wrapped some beans and cheese in a tortilla, swaddled it in salsa, and called it a burrito, but I never cooked, if you see what I mean, I ate, but I never paid very much attention to what I was eating), but I spent hours watching the Barefoot Contessa put things into ovens and Rachael Ray make lots of meals in 30 minutes. I watched these things in a very abstract way. I think when you watch cooking shows you're supposed to imagine yourself actually making these meals, actually serving them to people and eating them yourself, but I could never really do that, I couldn't imagine myself pre-heating the oven and making breaded chicken breasts in 30 minutes in my own home. I never really even tried to imagine this: the cooking shows were an escape, so completely and utterly separate from my own reality that they were as exciting to watch as something like Indiana Jones.

I also tried watching some of the reality shows on MTV, but I could never really keep up; every few minutes I would have to ask myself: Who are they? Have they slept together yet? This was not so foreign to me - at college, everything is really ultimately about who wants to sleep with whom, and that's what all these shows were, I think, also about. And so I suppose it was not really very interesting to watch these small dramas being played out on screen when I could simply watch them being played out in common rooms after midnight or at the back of lecture halls or in caf├ęs between classes.

And I watched sitcoms - mostly reruns of Friends, which I was ashamed to admit, because I had always thought Friends must be one of the most insipid shows ever created. It turned out I liked Friends. I think what I liked was the idea of everything existing so neatly: people who were emotionally close to each other (brothers, sisters, best friends) living in close physical proximity, their lives continually and elegantly overlapping, everything progressing more or less as you imagine it should - better jobs, deeper love affairs as time wore on.

But mostly I watched Gilmore Girls. Again, its wholesomeness felt very foreign; it was nice to watch a family interact when I had spent the previous year sharing a room with two other girls, waiting for showers and toilets to become available at night, drinking cheap vodka straight from the bottle even though we were not allowed alcohol in the dorms and chasing it with diet ginger ale from Whole Foods. Watching Gilmore Girls was a bit like holding on to a security blanket; I felt warmer watching these imaginary people in an imaginary town in Connecticut (which itself may as well have been imaginary: although I lived in New England now I had not yet been to Connecticut, and it was deliciously unlike anything else I knew very well). I wanted to go to a diner every morning where the owner knew my name; I wanted to live in a house with a porch, with different rooms allocated to different activities (it felt like so long since I had lived in an actual house, where the kitchen was separate from the living room which was separate from the bedroom!).


Now of course I do live in a house, with different rooms, where the kitchen is separate from the living room which is separate from the bedroom. And we don't have a TV. In fact I often wonder if we don't have a TV just for the novelty of not having one, just for the way it makes us sound (and therefore feel) smug and self-righteous.

But, really, where would we put a television? We have a whole house at our disposal and the thought of ruining any of the rooms with a gleaming screen is actually painful. We're happy to litter the place with laptops and iPhones and you can see the glow of gadgets here late into the night, yet I can't bear to make a commitment to this other kind of screen, this non-interactive screen that feeds but needs not be fed, that requires nothing of us other than our incomplete, fevered attention. We use BBC iPlayer, of course, we rent films on iTunes, the truth is we are as good at watching as anyone else, and yet I suppose I can't physically admit this, I can't stand the thought of not feeling smug. And so, consequently, we watch less. This is one of those examples I guess of where wanting to be a certain way can actually make you that way; I know I'm as inclined as the average American to watch more than four hours of television a day, but here I am, not watching four hours of television a day.


But then I find that I get this weird enjoyment from things like Doctor Who, and the enjoyment becomes interactive. I think I started watching Doctor Who because I liked watching David Tennant, the elasticity of whose face always seems to me a minor miracle, every expression a strange and fleeting work of art. And so to begin with, what was actually happening around him was irrelevant, it was just background noise. But then, in the way that these things happened, the background noise got louder and louder. And now I go on watching it, compulsively; I am invested somehow in the outcome of each episode.

But if I really think about it, it seems possible that I like Doctor Who because it's interesting to see time as something malleable instead of something dogged ("like an ever rolling stream" etc). My days, these days, are very much about time; everything divisible by hours and minutes, centred around the clock. I am very aware of time; obsessed by it, in fact. I am fascinated by the way my body adjusts without complaint, even while my mind wants to linger longer on one moment, say, than on the next. I write things like "I have a new bicycle". But then I think that this term, "new", is relative; I have had my bicycle for a month, so maybe it is not so new anymore - it has a few scratches, now, it has been outside in a rainstorm and I have ceased to notice how different my posture must be to accommodate the lower handlebars. I find the phrase "time lord" very appealing for the way it implies control, which is of course the one thing we don't have, we never have. Again this is about watching something which thrills, it's the ultimate form of tourism: I am thrilled by the exoticism of it, by the way time can be manipulated on screen, by the way my brain, meeting this strange new idea, wants to both recoil and to investigate simultaneously.

And if the thing about television is that it's a waste of time, which I suppose it is, in the way that anything can be construed, if you really thing about it, as a waste of time, then maybe this is exactly what to watch: something that subverts our conception of time, something that makes you feel - for a short hour, a shorter hour than usual - that things are neither linear nor predictable.