I was at a dinner party on the Main Line two weeks ago with a group of people I didn’t know that well. And like most people in such situations, I spent a good amount of the time simply trying to get my bearings, to adapt, because what I tend to talk about when I am in a living room in Haverford is not exactly the same stuff I talk about when I am visiting my parents in their brick twin in the Northeast. (“How was dinner with the fancy people?” my mother will ask when learning of some social engagement I have just attended.)
As I nibbled on gâteau de savoie and sipped the hosts’ excellent wine, the conversation meandered among the usual topics of politics (Romney inevitable, but Obama will be tough to beat in the general notwithstanding), travel (“Belize has just become overrun with tourists. It’s so disappointing”), and the recently awarded Oscars (“Have you seen The Artist?” Thank God I had.). Then someone brought up television—namely, that they were particularly enjoying Modern Family this season.
You could have heard a pin drop.
Now I admit, I have never seen an episode of Modern Family. But I am enough of a pop-culture vulture—it comes with the job—to know what it is, which is an acclaimed sitcom on network television. But from the reactions in the room, you would have thought the conversation had made a left turn into the virtues of sexual sadism. There was a mad rush to weigh in: not on the program, but on the fact that no one had actually seen the program, because (don’t you know?) watching television—or, more accurately, admitting that you are watching television—has become so very passé. A sampling of the comments: “Television bores me to tears”; “David and I just had the cable disconnected, because we realized we weren’t ever turning it on”; “I am just soooo busy—I only wish I could be one of those people who can hit the couch and watch TV!” (My personal favorite.)
I was almost tempted to lie and say I had seen Modern Family, just to tweak them all. Or, better yet, throw a real molotov cocktail into the room and offer—openly!—my thoughts on this year’s American Idol finalists. (Much better than last year’s, in case you’re wondering.)
Now, watching TV has always been something we spent too much time doing, as our nationwide obesity pandemic attests. But in our now high-tech, constantly on-the-move, “I am just swamped!” world, it has taken on an even more revolting tint, a shrine to laziness. You’re watching TV when you could be helping Sister Mary Scullion ladle soup? Or, better yet, taking a class at Lithe? What’s wrong with you?
Some of this is legit: The common lament that there have never been more channels offering less to watch feels valid every time I pick up the remote. And yet I find all of the remonstrating completely disingenuous. One, because by and large I don’t think most people have no free time. Second, by and large I do think a lot of those people are spending that free time watching TV. Often in their sweats.
And that’s OK. You’d be hard pressed to find a more golden age of television than the one we are in now—Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Justified, The Good Wife, all Tiffany programs. Despite intense competition from the Internet, television has in many respects risen to the call to innovate, to be better. Yes, there is still too much copy-catting going on, too many police procedurals and doctor shows and god-awful “reality” television that bears no resemblance to reality at all. (Although I confess: Love that Tabatha Coffey.) But if you look at what passed for good TV when I was growing up in the 1970s—Lindsay Wagner won a Best Actress Emmy for The Bionic Woman, for God’s sake—and compare it to today, anyone who calls television “nothing but a cultural wasteland” needs to change the channel.
As part of the so-called “television generation,” I find this sudden bragging contest over who can unplug the fastest odd. It would be different if I felt that people were ditching ye old boob tube for more highbrow pursuits: learning the violin, reading the classics. Or simply learning to cook Italian, for that matter. But they’re not. Instead of surfing cable they now surf the Net (and watch porn, which they’ll never admit), or spend hours with their index fingers swiping at their phone screens, zombie-staring at … well, I don’t know what. The only thing I know about my phone is that I live for any opportunity to ignore it.
Which brings me back to television. We are now at a place where acknowledging that you spend time in front of one deigns you as slightly lesser, or as the French might say, de le masses populaires. It’s the same faux snobbery that has infected everything from grocery shopping (You went to … the Acme? reads the horrified expression of the Whole Foodsers) to cell phones (A flip phone? They still make those?). An entire moral superiority complex has sprung up in our midst, its arbiters the people who give liberal Democrats a bad name. While there is indeed evidence that TV viewing is on the decline—viewership of network programming among 18-to-49-year-olds, the coveted advertising demographic, plunged nine percent last year—I think the shift is more cultural than that. Not watching television has taken on the same currency as buying a hybrid or going gluten-free: See? I’m better than you.
Perhaps it was inevitable, in a stubbornly stalled economy where no one knows how to get ahead anymore, that an intangible such as rising above watching TV would serve as a line of demarkation, a new weapon of class warfare. But frankly, I have better things to do than try and now keep up with the Joneses not through monetary gain, but leisure-time loss.
After all, fresh episodes of Revenge debut April 4th.