Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The big jar of rocks

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Elizabeth Moss and Jon Hamm on Mad Men

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What’s your absolute favorite piece of media so far this year?”

Earlier this week, while exploring the question of why we say someone is “in” a movie but “on” a television series, I got to thinking about the significance of the television set itself as a physical object. It’s hard to imagine a more ubiquitous appliance: a hotel room that contains nothing else but a bed and a toilet seems bare without that blank screen in the corner, and we encounter them in every waiting room, bar, and airport terminal. Television is a utility, like heat or gas, and when we talk about channels or airwaves, we’re making a subconscious analogy to running water. Most households have one, to the point where its absence is worth mentioning, and choosing not to own a television amounts to a political or lifestyle statement. Or at least it once did. Back when I was in college, acquiring a television set was a big deal: it freed us from the tyranny of the common room, where I had to stake a claim to watch everything from The X-Files to that one time R.E.M. appeared on Sesame Street. Nowadays, fewer college kids seem to make owning a set a priority, and if they do, it’s more likely to be used for gaming. We have plenty of other screens that can do the same work as well or better, and in a decade or two, television sets may seem like dusty relics, kept out of nostalgia or inertia, like the radios or electric organs in the parlor of your grandmother’s house.

Yet that box still carries a psychological significance. It serves as a reminder, or even an advertisement, of the fact that television exists. We still switch it on out of habit, just because it’s there, and even those of us who don’t use it as a source of background noise are likely to flip through the channels as soon as we drop our bags in the aforementioned hotel room. The same qualities that make it seem vaguely anachronistic—the way it’s tethered to a bulky, immovable object, or how the flow of information goes only one way—are a big part of its lingering appeal. It doesn’t demand anything of us, except that we keep it in our line of sight, and it remains an ideal source of distraction and consolation for loners, agoraphobes, and new parents. Even as we migrate to other sources of content, television stands at the center of that solar system: maybe a quarter of the time I spend online is devoted to scrolling through news, criticism, episode recaps, or think pieces about the shows I like, which is more than I spend reading about politics, current events, or just about anything else. Even when that screen in the corner remains dark, it throws out its tendrils into whatever browser window happens to be open. It’s the Cthulhu of pop culture, invading the dreams of its followers even as it slumbers in the deep.

Robert Durst in The Jinx

And you can see the impact on this blog. Over the last six months, the only film released this year to which I’ve devoted a complete post, somewhat hilariously, is Blackhat, which was seen by fewer moviegoers on its entire run than turn out on a good afternoon for Jurassic World. I haven’t written about any new books at all—the most recent novel I’ve finished reading, The Goldfinch, was published two years ago. As with most people in their middle thirties, my knowledge of current music is actively embarrassing. Yet over the same period, I’ve written extensively about television shows like Parks and Recreation, House of Cards, Glee, The Jinx, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Vampire Diaries, Mad Men, Community, Game of Thrones, True Detective, and Hannibal. I don’t even think of myself as a television fan, at least not in the way I love the movies, but my shift in that direction has been as decisive as it felt inevitable. A lot of this is due to the fact that I just don’t get out as much as I once did, except to bring my daughter to the playground or library. But if I’ve embraced television instead of becoming a better reader or catching up on music, it tells us something about how that medium insinuates itself so readily into the pockets of time that remain.

Television, after all, is infinitely expandable or compressible, as long as you extend its definition to other forms of streaming content. It can take up weeks of your life or a minute or two at a time. If you want to be told a novelistic story, it’s happy to oblige, but it’s equally capable of delivering a quick laugh or a snackable dose of diversion. And at a time when my life sometimes seems packed to bursting with the demands of work and parenthood, it’s glad to take up whatever bandwidth remains. I can give it as much, or as little, energy as I like. My wife listens to podcasts for much the same reason, and radio has certainly mastered the trick of rewarding a wide range of attentiveness: even the best radio programs encourage their listeners to do as little thinking for themselves as possible. And if I’ve stuck with television instead, it’s because it was there already, just waiting for me to turn the faucet. It reminds me of Stephen Covey’s parable of the jar of rocks, although with the opposite moral: even when it seems full, you can pour in a little more water until all the nooks and crannies are filled. Television has had decades of practice at filling us up to the brim, and lucky for me, it’s been a great six months. (For the record, the best things I’ve seen so far this year are The Jinx and the Mad Men finale.) But if television is the water in the jar, books, movies, and music are the rocks. This isn’t a value judgment, just an observation. And as Covey likes to say, if you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in at all.

Written by nevalalee

July 3, 2015 at 9:47 am

Posted in Television

Tagged with , ,

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