idiot box

I was five before anyone noticed that I couldn’t see past my own feet. In hindsight, much of my peculiar behavior up to that point could be chalked up to my near-blindness: the way I stared at the ground when I walked and held books inches from my face to read them and how I called pennies “drops of money.” (At the same time, no near-disability could explain away my decision to rename myself “Vicki Pat Rice” or the solid year I spent refusing to wear any article of clothing that wasn’t a bathing suit. I was both blind and weird, characteristics that have persisted into adulthood.)

More than anything, though, my childhood blindness explained my aversion to movies. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would voluntarily spend hours in a darkened room staring at blobs on a screen. (The glaring exception here was “101 Dalmatians,” which I begged my parents to borrow from the library every week. I guess I could handle movies whose primary tropes involved 101 characters that all looked alike.) I fell in love with books instead—probably because I could hold them inches from my face without anyone looking at me sideways—and left movies and, by extension, television, to the more sighted masses.

Two decades later, while I catch the occasional movie, I still haven’t developed an interest in mtelevision. Unfortunately, this is much more detrimental to my participation in the world at large than it was when I was a blind four-year-old. It was one thing when I was fourteen and I didn’t watch “One Tree Hill,” but with the advent of Netflix, DVR, and binge watching, the world cannot conceive of a pop culture-literate twentysomething who, God forbid, has never sat down for eight hours to watch an entire season of “House of Cards.”

I consume television the way I consume, say, classical music. I might leave it on in the background, and there are a a few gems that I treasure, but I don’t actively seek it out. I wouldn’t pay for a concert ticket… although I should confess here that I pay the extra $30 or so for cable television on top of my Internet for the sole purpose of leaving Food Network on at an indecipherably low volume because the dulcet tones of Guy Fieri are an excellent substitute for a roommate, one that doesn’t forget to change the dish towel. Regardless, I know about as much about “Mad Men” as I do about Wagner, and I have about as much desire to watch every episode of it as I do to listen to the entire Ring cycle. (Sorry, Jon.)

I frequently engage in some variation of the following conversation. Someone asks, “Do you watch ‘Orange is the New Black?’” And I say, “No, I actually don’t watch a lot of TV.” And they hear, apparently, “No, I actually don’t have Netflix.” And then they ask, “Did you see the ‘Breaking Bad’ finale? Will I spoil it if I talk about it?” And I say, “No, I actually don’t watch a lot of TV.” And they think something like, “Oh, it’s too gory for her.” (I watched four episodes, actually, and it was. Also, I got depressed. It sort of reminded me of a grown-up version of something that might happen in a Sammy Keyes mystery novel, and that was depressing, and then I got distracted by the fact that I don’t have any Wendelin Van Draanen books on my shelf and high-tailed it to Amazon to see if she’s written anything for adults that I might be able to read in public without losing my dignity.)

The conversation doesn’t end there, though. You can explain away my aversion to most popular TV shows: “Game of Thrones” is too bloody or too fantastical, “House of Cards” and “Scandal” too political, “Mad Men” too misogynistic. But where I finally have to confess that I’m a cultural illiterate who lives under a rock is when someone drops the trump card: “Downton Abbey.” I have no excuse not to watch “Downton Abbey.” I’m a liberal who thinks that PBS is an appropriate way for the government to allocate Mitt Romney’s tax dollars. I understand and appreciate British humor. I can make educated comments about how classism is alive and well in modern society, and I read long books of my own volition, and also, I like castles. When I tell people that I don’t watch “Downton Abbey,” they think that I’m referring to the last episode, or that I misheard them. “You don’t watch ‘Downton?’” they ask, bewildered. “But… you’re…” And all I can do is nod sadly. I was born to watch “Downton Abbey.” But I don’t.

It’s not because I think television is lowbrow. It’s because I think it’s boring. It’s because of what drew me to books as a half-blind four-year-old. There’s no way to put this in words that aren’t painfully hokey, but it’s because books offer me an outlet for my imagination that television and movies can never provide. When I read, I am engrossed in the prose and in conjuring the images that the author has put forth for me to engage with. Conversely, when I watch television, I feel like a passive consumer of images that I have no agency to interpret, and so I’m not as engaged. I’m aware of my surroundings the way I never am with a book that’s even remotely engrossing.

I get this sensation with books as lowbrow as mass market young adult fiction and as highbrow as 500-page novels by Hungarian nihilists with an aversion to traditional punctuation. I spent a good portion of last summer stretched out on a lounge chair by the pool on my apartment building’s rooftop deck reading Anna Karenina, because what better way to escape the D.C. swamp than to pretend you’re throwing yourself on the train tracks in a frigid Moscow winter? (One could argue that one could more effectively escape the D.C. swamp by spending a few quality hours in a dark air-conditioned room. Like the ones where they show movies. Whatever.)

Maybe it’s because I was half-blind when I was little and I missed out on developing some kind of visual entertainment appreciation function. Maybe it’s because television is actually boring and I’m the only person in the universe who is enlightened enough to realize otherwise. (You know that episode of “How I Met Your Mother” where the gang makes fart noises every time Ted talks because he’s a pretentious asshole? 1) Good pop culture reference, self. See? I’m not totally inept. 2) This would be an appropriate time to employ that device.) The reason is unimportant, but the fact remains: one of the many insurmountable obstacles that prevent me from ever achieving normalcy is that the only thing I do with my television is fantasize about marrying Alex Trebek.

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2 thoughts on “idiot box”

  1. Downton is overrated. Your reflections on television make me half-minded to start ranting about Hollywood Blockbusters, action movies, special effects overload, surround-sound cinemas with volume turned up to the point where I need ear plugs, and one of my pet hates, overly-intrusive movie music scores that bludgeon you to distraction by assuming that you need to be constantly bombarded with clues as to what is happening, as if there were no visual clues to this at all when in fact everything has been made so overly obvious that you knew what was going to happen before the movie finished the intro. And then there’s films like ‘Snake On A Plane’… I mean, really? Is there any point in even bothering to film anything?… Oh, I just ranted. Far less eloquently than your beautifully written piece.

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  2. “It was one thing when I was fourteen and I didn’t watch “One Tree Hill,” but with the advent of Netflix, DVR, and binge watching, the world cannot conceive of a pop culture-literate twentysomething who, God forbid, has never sat down for eight hours to watch an entire season of “House of Cards.”

    Very aptly put. I do not understand watching everysingleseason of “Scrubs” or “Criminal Minds”…. It amuses and pleases me when I hear for the first time about an acclaimed TV show that’s been running for the past several years.

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