Andrew Smiler doesn’t watch weekly series because he’s not willing to make an emotional commitment to a TV character.
Confession time: I didn’t watch Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, or any other culturally important TV series in the last 20 years. When people invited me to final episode parties, I didn’t go. And that includes my roommate’s invitation to watch the end of Seinfeld; I left the house instead.
But I grew up as a TV watcher. Seriously. I was raised by a single mom and, in the jargon of the early 80s, was a “latchkey kid.” When I got home, I’d turn the TV on. I watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, and Laverne & Shirley. Evenings had some of those shows, as well as Mork & Mindy, Soap, Cosby, Cheers, and a littler later, St. Elsewhere and LA Law.
And sports, of course. I grew up in the Philadelphia area, and it was a great time to be a Philly fan. The Broad Street Bullies were still tearing up the league, even if they couldn’t quite beat the Islanders in a 7 game series (or the referees couldn’t figure out what offsides meant). The Phillies won it all on my birthday in 1980 and almost did it again in 1983, Dick Vermeil’s Eagles got to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1980 season, and Dr. J and the ‘Sixers finally got by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson to win the championship in 1983.
I used to secretly hope that the Nielsen Company would call to ask what we were watching. The one time they actually did, my mom and I were sitting at the dinner table. She answered, and I heard her say “no, we’re not watching TV right now.” I’d have lied and told them what I’d have been watching if we weren’t eating.
By the time I finished college and grad school, I was mostly done with TV. After the shows I’d grown up with went off the air, I didn’t replace them, although I’ve continued to watch sports – especially the NHL and NFL.
There were a few reasons why I stopped watching. One was my job: family therapist. Having spent the afternoon and early evening talking with parents and kids about what was going wrong, I didn’t really want to watch people having problems with each other. Still don’t, so no soap operas. And no drama filled “reality shows” like Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, or any other show that highlights interpersonal drama. (And whose reality includes being followed around by a camera crew or being required to hang out with complete strangers?)
Comedies are also a problem for me. My inner therapist gets annoyed at how easily things get worked out in 30 minutes and the fact that characters will make the same mistake in episode after episode without learning anything. My friends tell me the shows are funny, I should lighten up, and I shouldn’t take it so seriously. I get where they’re coming from, but I can’t do it; seeing people make stupid mistakes doesn’t make me laugh, it makes me want to ask them what they’re thinking.
I understand that some people enjoy comedies because watching people make stupid mistakes – the kind of mistakes that we viewers would never ever make – makes them feel better. It was one of the things my mother and stepfather liked about Two and a Half Men. Comedy based on incompetence, and especially comedy based on insults, has never really worked for me. Maybe that’s because I’m empathic and resonate with other people’s pain. Did I mention the therapist thing?
Over the years, and especially as my therapeutic work and my research have come to focus on men, watching incompetent men on screen has become even more annoying. Some of it is downright insulting, especially the “men can’t raise kids” shtick. It boggles my mind that TV dads can fix all sorts of things around the house or hold down serious jobs that require substantial education, but they can’t figure out how to work a diaper with two pieces of Velcro on a piece of clothing that looks like every pair of underwear they’ve ever worn. Those gags create and perpetuate negative stereotypes of men.
But dramas? Dramas should be good. The characters are intelligent, interpersonal conflict isn’t the focus, and the shows can ask some serious questions about who we are. I’m told Breaking Bad posed some serious questions of that sort. My movie choices are almost always dramas, so there should be some TV shows I like. Yet I haven’t really gotten into a weekly show for years.
Some of this is habit. I only watch sports, so I’m not really paying attention to the rest of the options. It also means that the only time I turn the TV on is to watch a game; I almost never turn it on and just channel hop. Thanks, but I’d rather listen to music, read a book, or watch a movie.
My wife is a TV watcher and she prefers dramas, police procedurals to be exact. I’ve gotten to know characters in several of her shows, and I ask her to give me major plot updates so I’ll know what’s going on if I sit down to watch an episode with her. But I’m not particularly invested in the characters; they’re kind of like my wife’s friends that I hear about but don’t spend time with. I might see them a few times a year and they might influence my wife’s life, but they have little bearing on my day-to-day.
An offhand comment of my wife’s helped me figure out why I don’t watch TV series. One September, as she was deciding which shows to watch, she told me she was “breaking up” with two of her longtime shows. And that clued me in to my non-watching.
It’s about relationships, in a way. TV characters want me to think they’re important, or at least important enough to be worth an hour of my time every week. For me to get into a show and watch week after week, I need to connect to the characters. Like many guys, connection is easier for me when I can do something with somebody, although I do have friends where it’s all conversation and no activity.
But no matter how much I like a TV character, they won’t like me back. We’ll never be able to hang out or have a beer together, and they won’t be around to help move something large or fix something around the house. (Yes, really.) I can’t even talk to them. It’s a one way friendship where I care about them and they act like I don’t even exist. I can’t do that.
So I’m sticking with sports. It’s still a one way relationship and it can pack an emotional punch, especially when one of my teams is playing a big game. But it’s also got the familiarity of an old friend, the kind of relationship where you can go months or years without seeing each other and pick up exactly where you left off. And regardless of my relationship with any particular sport or team, watching sports is an activity that I can share with a friend almost anytime.
On the TV at home, sports includes some nontraditional competitions like cooking and fashion design, but whatever. The drama is defined and constrained by the game, and it’s never very personal. That’s fine by me. I’ll save the emotional investment for the people in my real life.
-image by Nemo/Pixabay