TV Is Making Us Less Happy. Is It Time to Stop Watching?

| December 18, 2013
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TV

I love making New Year’s resolutions. My list is usually long and filled with poetic abstractions like “LOVE & LIGHT” (I totally stuck to that resolution last year, by the way) or things that are whimsically easy to honor like wearing red lipstick more. So, it’s mid-December and time to start deciding what kind of mood I’m aiming for in 2014. While I’m going to stick with LOVE & LIGHT and red lipstick, of course, I’ll be adding new intentions as well. I’m thinking about using Instagram less so I remember more. But the one resolution that keeps insisting itself took me slightly by surprise: I need to watch less television.

My grandmother used to say that if you’re at a party where talk turns to TV, then the party is over. I appreciate the spirit of her advice, and I’m inclined to agree. And yet lately, everywhere I am, at dinner, at parties, at any gathering of more than one person, TV comes up, and it comes up at length. Almost 100% of the time. And it’s starting to make me feel like the party is over.

Now, I’m definitely as guilty of this as the next person. I want to discuss Juliette Barnes, and the sociological factors that made Breaking Bad such a cultural phenomenon. I want to rhapsodize about how New Girl captures the humor of my generation, or how Scandal is, well, scandalous. I want to jokingly yell, “Spoiler alert,” when Pretty Little Liars comes up (the prevalence of that phrase is interesting too) and I love the live-texting updates I’m getting from my friend who is speed watching Gossip Girl. When The Bachelor/ette is airing, you’re lucky if you can get me to talk about anything other than my psychological theories about it. I crush anyone in Friends trivia, I get a lot of my news from The Daily Show and, as a writer, I think some of the narrative elements, characterization, and arcs that certain shows utilize are instructive and intriguing.

apt 23

The now-cancelled show, Don’t Trust the B**** in Apt 23. No one has seen it so I can’t talk about it with anyone.

There’s much to be said for TV these days. It definitely seems like it’s the smartest it has ever been, with good writing and an interesting range of subject matter. The medium is certainly being explored and utilized well. And our desire to discuss our shows with each other is a way to bond over this shared experience we’re collectively having as viewers, which is understandable. I recently tried to convince my friends to watch the flawed, dark, already-cancelled The B**** in Apartment 23  because I’m convinced of its subversive cleverness and James Van Der Beek playing himself is deliciously perfect (who knew he was so funny?). I wanted someone to discuss this with me! That sharing and discussion felt like part of the viewing process.

And yet, lately, I just feel a little disconcerted about all of it. What in small doses is just good old fashioned escapism can become quite detrimental in larger doses. The nature of streaming television shows demands a type of excess. Next thing we know, hours of our life are gone, and no wonder we can’t think of anything else to talk about. Nothing else has happened! David Foster Wallace says it well in this awesome essay: “the ‘special treat’ of TV begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed, and the original hunger subsides to a strange objectless unease.” Lest some of this seems too dramatic, studies suggest that TV is related to people feeling more irritable and less happy (while listening to the radio and reading the newspaper actually increases life satisfaction).

Recently, it was getting harder and harder to even sit through a movie and it was troubling that I couldn’t concentrate on a self-contained, two hour story as I once easily could. My new-found attention deficit emphasized for me that the nature of TV stories versus movie stories is vastly different on many levels. The familiarity of the TV story has an appeal. I know what to expect with Olivia Pope and Associates. Even as there are twists and turns, I still know the story, the characters, the basic premise and mood of what I’m getting myself into. When I sit down to watch a movie, there’s more mystery. I might like it, I might be bored, I might have my mind blown. I’d forgotten how to appreciate that uncertainty, how to wait for the story to unfold, and determine how I felt. So between my dwindling party-talk abilities, and the fact that by the time I’m 80, it’s possible I’ll have watched 116, 800 hours of television, I decided it was time to make some resolutions!

My relationship to television was different when I was a teenager catching up on Days of Our Lives on my sick days, and begging my parents to let me to watch 90210. Kill Your Television bumper stickers were popular, Adbusters was all the rage, it was considered “cool” if you didn’t have a television, or had one you didn’t watch. The quality of TV was lower then, and anti-TV sentiment was high. While we might have spent time discussing Jordan Catalano, for the most part we were watching Pump up the Volume and Heathers, and discovering masterpieces like Breathless and Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy. TV didn’t hold a candle to any of that. Movies have always been one of my favorite forms of entertainment, storytelling and art. So it makes me nervous that when I sit down to pick something to watch, I’m more likely to choose a TV show over a movie these days.

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Photo: Laura Schadler

It seems the discussion has shifted over the years from how television makes us dangerously sedentary, saps our creativity, and affects our dreams, to how smart TV writing is now. From The Sopranos and Six Feet Under onward, I feel like I’ve heard this logic repeated over and over (and repeated it myself), as a way to assuage our guilt over our hours of passivity. But at the end of the day, even smart TV is, well, TV. And I know it’s old school, but I keep thinking of Marshall McLuhan and his famous sentiment of, “The medium is the message.” It does seem worth considering that the impact of a medium is perhaps at least just as worthy of analysis as the content within it. That’s kind of where I am with TV these days. The content is pretty good, but the medium is Netflix starting the next episode while the credits of the former episode are still running. The medium is ubiquitous, consuming, constant. Its addictive presence is begging us all to be a little more careful.

I want to watch TV like I used to, sparingly, only one episode at a time, with minimal discussion afterward. I want to look forward to it, not use it as a way to fill up my time. And, more importantly, I want to read entire articles from beginning to end, and bring up the NSA and short fiction over dinner instead. I want to read The House of Psychotic Women. I want to support cool, local, artsy endeavors. I want to watch Room 237 and discuss theories about The Shining. I want to see movies and talk about them. I’ll even take a bad movie that has some unexpectedly weird aspect to it. I want to be able to focus for as long as it takes to finish something, and enjoy the challenging, slow paced and difficult. I want to regularly demonstrate my patience, critical thinking, immersion, uncertainty, and focus. I even want to watch all those crazy videos for Beyonce’s new album. I don’t want to kill my TV entirely, but I want to ignore it a little bit better. I want to be more conscious and mindful about what I watch. After all, that’s what fills up my brain and what I dream about. I want to fight off this “objectless unease.” I’ll let you know if I stick with it.

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About the Author ()

Laura Schadler grew up in the mountains of Virginia. She studied filmmaking at Bard College, and writing at California College of the Arts. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Denver Quarterly, Gettysburg Review, Fourteen Hills, and West Branch Wired, among others. She teaches writing and is currently working on a novel.