Man Versus Food: On Watching Television

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PRELUDE

Dog shit! Urine-stained dog shit! Rock ‘n’ roll is a blood sport, a sport of men. It’s for the people in the dark, the death cats, the masturbators, the outcasts who have no voice, no way of saying “I hate this world, my father’s a faggot, fuck you, fuck authority – I want an orgasm!” Now, growl! Moan! This ain’t women’s lib, kiddies – this is women’s libido! I wanna see the scratch marks down their fucking backs! Now, do it again. Again. Like your boyfriend just fucked your sister in your parent’s bed. Like you want a fucking orgasm!

-Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), The Runaways

Partygoer: My doctor told me I was having the wrong kind of orgasm.
Alvy Singer: Gee, every one I’ve ever had was right on the money.
-Annie Hall

In a groundbreaking exclusive deal that was announced last month, Amazon has just added a slew of classic HBO shows to its Instant Streaming Service — and Amazon Prime members can start binge-watching them right now.
-Scott Meslow, theweek.com

What are YOU going to watch during Binge Week?
-Xfinity.com, advertising tagline

Binge watching versus weekly watching: It changes everything
-Todd VanDerWerff, vox.com

(END OF PRELUDE)

We, as a nation, are very much in danger of forgetting a basic truth: watching television is selfish.

This may sound like a criticism, but from my perspective, it’s really not. There are a lot of things we do for ourselves that we have every right to do, and that indirectly benefit the world at large by making us happier, better-adjusted people.

Having sex, for example. We all understand its indirect value, and at the same time, we’re all comfortable describing it as something we do for ourselves. Yes, it’s important to make your partner happy, but is anything more icky than imagining someone having sex without thinking of their own pleasure at all? Actually, yes: it would be even more icky if somebody was having sex in order to be happier, with more serotonin and oxytocin in their brain, reduced levels of cortisol, and greater social ease.

(That’s why Maude Lebowski is humorously absurd. It’s why, when guys treat masturbation as self-help, they get mocked by There’s Something About Mary and Entourage. When abstinent men or women do the opposite — which isn’t really the opposite at all, but rather the same thing all over again — they get mocked, too, for example by Dr. Strangelove and Louie.)

Strangely enough, however, that is exactly how many people, especially television critics, seem to approach watching television. They are so focused on the indirect benefits — the supposed gains for feminism, ethnic and sexual pride, political savoir-faire, compassion, social activism, and so on — that they disavow the subversive pleasures of television, and treat it like food, instead of treating it like sex. The result is a lot of praise for a lot of shows that suck, while other shows are wrongly ignored or even panned.

Television is not food. Spending a day watching Game of Thrones is not like having too many yams and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving. The all-important, unstated promise of “binge-watching” — namely, that you can binge on something without getting fat — also demonstrates the stupidity of the analogy. Buddhist eating practices and the “slow food” movement notwithstanding, eating does not have to be a mindful activity. You can be completely distracted during every single meal you eat, for an entire year, and as long as you are eating decent food, you will be just fine. If you are completely distracted during an episode of True Detective, on the other hand, then you accomplished nothing by watching it.

I realize I’ve made similar points before, but I want to refine my analogy a little by asserting that the pleasure of television resides in its peculiar combination of aspiration and sympathy. We feel like Don Draper, and at the same time, we want to be Don Draper. If the point of Greek tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to leave us in a state of pity and fear, the point of good television is to deliver sympathetic victories we can believe in, just barely. It is inherently anti-tragic, at least when it follows the American model. That’s why the American version of The Office could never duplicate the cinematic trajectory of the (classically tragic) British version.

You think you were watching Breaking Bad because it’s so interesting that Walter White turns into a villain? Bullshit. You were watching it because Heisenberg is fucking awesome. In the final episode, Walter has snipers with red laser scopes getting a bead on the bourgeois jerks who stole his life’s work from him. Almost literally, Heisenberg’s finale involves sharks with friggin’ lasers on their heads. You think you were watching The Wire to learn about the deep history of Baltimore’s socio-political quagmires? Bullshit. You were watching it because McNulty and Greggs and Stringer and D’Angelo and Omar were all exceptionally cool.

Along those lines, I am very tired of reading negative reviews of the second season of True Detective, most of which are founded on the premise that Colin Farrell is no Matthew McConaughey. I doubt there’s a television critic alive who wouldn’t identify as a feminist, and yet all of these leading lights are apparently incapable of realizing that Rachel McAdams is the McConaughey character, while Colin Farrell is playing a version of Woody Harrelson’s Detective Hart. The critics are so angry about being asked to idolize a woman that they have hurled every insult they can muster at Pizzolatto’s surprisingly good reboot.

Furthermore, outgrowing a character does not change the fundamental reason for watching a show. Television is so good at flattering its audience that the audience often feels superior to the characters — eventually, after a long period of idolizing them. Nobody cried when Tony Soprano died. We all felt that his death was inevitable; we saw it coming. We wanted him to repent, and change his ways — if only for the sake of his family! — but he never did, and we shouted out “Who killed Tony Soprano?!” when after all it was you and me.

In other words, if classical tragedy asks us to become afraid of the mistakes we might make, good television delights us with versions of the breakthroughs we hope to achieve. That’s why it’s even possible to feel smarter than a favorite character: if we were running drugs in the city of Baltimore, we say to ourselves, we would have been smarter about it.

Binge-watching is good for sites like Netflix, because they can demonstrate customer loyalty. They also build loyalty through TV binges, in a curious reflexive way, where consumers retroactively justify their binges by deciding they must really like Netflix (or Amazon Prime, or what-have-you). It is, without a doubt, quintessentially American to conflate sex with food. But the triumphs of really satisfying television are, if you will pardon me for saying so, climactic moments of sympathy and aspiration. There is a limit point beyond which our endurance is, um, exhausted. If the viewer doesn’t take a break, and smoke a cigarette, the next episodes will matter less than they should.

So bingeing on television ends up being either tantric, which is always detectable and a little unsavory, or else proof that the show wasn’t actually that good in the first place. Why did everyone binge-watch Daredevil? Because it was unsatisfying, that’s why. It put us through endless scenes with the (totally wasted) Rosario Dawson, purely for the sake of teasing. It squandered great seduction scenes on its villain, when it should have given at least some of them to the hero. Want more proof? Compare Bob Gunton in The Shawshank Redemption, where he is the grandly terrifying Warden, to the same actor boring us all to tears as a minor baddie in Daredevil.

Let somebody else waste their time binge-watching Transparent and Togetherness and Bloodline and Sense 8. I want to hear Ray Velcoro tell a traumatized 12-year-old bully that “next time,” he (Ray) is going to sodomize the boy’s dad with the headless corpse of his mom. (Unlike the increasingly insufferable Tyrion Lannister, Velcoro is a drunken buffoon with the courage to be a drunken buffoon.) I want to see Lee Payne singing “Lexapro” to the tune of “Let It Go.” I want to watch Darlene breaking into Elliot Alderson’s apartment, over and over again, just because she likes him.

I say, to hell with “daily life.” I say, people are boring. I say, it’s understandable when somebody is fucked-up, in every possible sense of the word. So tell me, Mr. Director Of Programming, what shows have you got for the people in the dark? What shows have you got for the death cats? What shows have you got for people like me?

That’s the question that got iZombie and Mr. Robot and Happy-ish made, and none of those shows needed a “binge” to gain momentum. Dear readers, life is harsh, brutish, and short. Don’t spend it eating things that don’t have any calories.

happyish

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