Submitted Date 03/05/2019

My T.V. backlog has gotten way out of hand lately. My friends ask me, “oh, have you seen this latest episode of Such and Such?” And I have to reply, “no, I’ve been meaning to.” Usually I’ve been “meaning to” for a while. There’s just already so much to watch, so much to see. We live in this Digital/Information Age where all the media that ever existed is just a few clicks away. Then every few months even more shows up. Lately it’s got me thinking: exactly what role do these shows play in modern life? What role do they play in my life?


If you were to line up all the different shows I’ve watched in the last year, it would read like some chaotic epic poem. I’ve been through horrors, sci-fi’s, countless sitcoms. Cutesy cartoons one night and hard-boiled cop dramas the next. I watched all of Twin Peaks (enough said). Why? What keeps drawing me—and us—back to this particular medium?


Maybe it’s just me, but I think it’s because T.V. is such a long-form medium. You watch a movie and it doesn’t even take a full day. Music comes and goes. Both of these things are great, don’t get me wrong. But T.V. can keep you occupied for weeks and months at a time. And during these potential months, your own daily life is happening simultaneously.


Last year I went though another era of 30 Rock, during which Liz Lemon ruled with an iron fist. For me, that was during “the big move.” And so you get these moments where the show becomes part of your own memories. Sitting with big stacks of cardboard boxes all around, watching an episode on the only thing still plugged in.

Or watching Stranger Things with my family during the hurricane (curse you Florida!).

Or when the new season of Arrested Development landed just as my friends visited from out-of-state.


These narratives that you see on the screen weave themselves through your own. And it’s worth mentioning that these shows that we watch are essentially just someone else’s narrative. Shows like Seinfeld and The Office are full of chopped-up bits of other peoples’ lives; by watching, we’re sort of injecting external experiences into our own. Moreover, these little peeks into other’s lives are arranged around an artistic vision (at least, good ones are).


So what you’re effectively getting by watching television is a complex amalgam of art and life. The artistic side of a show is valuable in its own right, of course—who doesn’t love art? But on top of that you’re connecting emotionally with the show’s creators: the writers, director, actors. And finally you’re internalizing this art into your own life story, by spreading it throughout your memories over a long period of time.


If you’re waiting for me to get to the point, I’m not sure there is one. Even some seventy years later, the full impact of television as an art form is still poorly understood. Considering the wild twists and turns the medium has been taking in recent years, I’d argue we probably won’t fully understand it for decades. All I really know is this: I’ve got to get around to watching Westworld soon.


Please login to post comments on this story

  • Tomas Chough 3 years, 9 months ago

    Good one James! For me watching a show is another form of escapism. I don't say this in a negative way unless you really can't get your eyes of the screen. But watching a show is a good way to wind down or just disconnect from things and be entertained. It's not having to think about anything but what you're watching and enjoy the moment. I also agree that shows can mark a moment in time and be big parts of our memories. Kind of like music. Thanks for sharing!