This one time, I went to a Renaissance Faire and stopped by a fortune teller’s tent.
(I know the above sentence is a lot to take in. It tells you that: 1.) I’m the type of person who goes to Renaissance Faires, 2.) I’m the type of person to solicit the services of a charlatan, and 3.) I went inside a stranger’s tent. I have no defense. I enjoy all of these activities.)
The fortune teller was a woman of a certain age with bright eyes, wearing the requisite dangly jewelry. Her tent was homey and purple and filled with flowers. She radiated comfort.
Rather than read my palm or sort out any cards, she claimed that in order to best tell me my future she had to hold my hand. This was the only way to galvanize the forces of the universe, which coursed through my body and flowed out of my fingertips.
“I didn’t know,” I said, wiggling my fingers.
She waited. I gave over my hand. It tingled under the weight of the universe.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “You’re not here for relationship advice.”
I shook my head.
“You want to know something about your career.”
I sat up straight. “Yes,” I whispered.
“What do you want to know?”
“What I want is very hard to achieve. Will I be successful?”
She paused. “Yes. But it won’t be the way you envision.”
What was that supposed to mean? “I don’t —”
She held up her palm. Silence! She seemed to be receiving further instructions from my han– er, the universe.
She finally opened her eyes.
“TV. For your career. You need to watch more TV.” Then she let go of my hand, finished.
I sat back, stunned. How could she have known this about me? It can’t be Googled, you wouldn’t know it by looking at me, and there was no one she could have asked.
You see, at that time, I didn’t watch television at all.
It wasn’t always that way. There was plenty of TV watching in my house as a kid.
It all started with The Price Is Right. At the mere age of four, I was hooked. Every morning at 11, I would sit two feet from the TV and drink in the orange glow of Bob Barker’s skin. As Johnny Olson’s booming voice called out the names of housewives with bouffant hairdos and guys wearing Hawaiian shirts, I would gobble down on Cheese Balls.
(In the ’80s, Cheese Balls came in a tin, as opposed to their current barrel form. Still the same: there’s a lot of balls in there. I have no idea why my mother allowed this debauchery.)
“A car!” I would scream to my mother, who was sitting in another room. “They won a car!”
“That’s amazing,” she would reply.
“I can’t believe it,” I would say, shaking my head, Cheese Ball dust flying everywhere.
The show filled me with wonder and taught me how capitalism works: if you’re lucky enough to be picked, an older white man surrounded by beautiful women will grant you a few needed household items and maybe a trip to Santa Barbara, about which you can brag to your friends back at the widget factory. The Price Is Right taught me the value of stuff and the value of having all of the stuffs. It made such an impression on me that to this day, I think of Southern California as nothing more than the place where the Price is Right Showcase Showdown Wheel lives.
But I learned other values from TV, too. There was Sesame Street. Heard of it? Sesame Street was loving and diverse, gritty and unsanitized. On it lived a great big bird of sunshine and a grumpy green goblin in a trashcan house, among many other fuzzy creatures. It took place in an inner city where celebrities came to visit. There were songs, learnings, and tripped-out cartoons. I absolutely loved it.
Some have criticized Sesame Street for various reasons. If it can be faulted for anything, though, maybe it’s for the glowing, hippie-like hopefulness it espouses. Or maybe for promoting the idea that the world can be good, kind, and helpful. Or for teaching us that utopia is achievable.
Though what else should we teach our children to have but hope? If this is wrong:
…then I don’t want to be right. But I am right, because it’s not wrong. If I believe in people, then dagnabbit, blame Sesame Street.
By late grade school and middle school, my taste in TV shows progressed even further. As I learned more about the world and my place in it, I saw the struggle and, at times, understood the necessity of fighting against forces of harm. Also, as a pre-teen, my gonads were changing and I was noticing more birds and more bees. My tastes moved thusly toward the beefy men of the action genre.
GI Joe was one of my favorite cartoons. I watched it every day after school, mostly because of this cool drink of water.
Flint had a thing for Lady J, another GI Joe character. The will-they-or-won’t-they chemistry of their relationship rivaled the best of adult programming. GI Joe was basically Moonlighting for 10-year-olds. I lapped it up, unsure of all those crazy feelings stirring inside of my burgeoning gametes.
Another after-school favorite was Thundercats. Man, just look at their badass symbol!
He was OK, I guess. Nice hair. I wanted to be another Thundercat, Cheetara.
I don’t think those shows were meant to impart anything. This was not smart television. The focus, if any, was about being entertained by your basic good vs. evil battles. These battles were never ending. Even though the GI Joes and Thundercats won their respective tussles every show, the villains would be back again the next week. There was never any progress. Even as a kid, I thought, “Didn’t Snake Eyes bite it on the last episode?” But then I would shrug, hunker down, and enjoy the ride, as was my American right. I don’t remember plot lines from any of these cartoons, just imagery and feeling, and I think that’s the point. I also don’t remember algebra anymore, though. So.
By high school, my TV viewing habits had altered once again. But this time, it had more to do with changes in my family life than anything of my own doing. While my peers were watching MTV’s The Real World, 90210, Seinfeld, Friends, and Saved By the Bell, my viewing habits had been curbed. I was not allowed to watch MTV at all, nor any of the “racy” teen or adult shows that aired at night.
Instead, I tuned in to Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist after school, and – on Friday nights – Family Matters and Boy Meets World. My TV tastes had become entirely wholesome apart from the sometimes-saucy Jewish jokes on Dr. Katz.
I fell out of the loop, couldn’t keep up with my peers. I didn’t know who Screech was. An owl, maybe? TV had become a source of angst, tension, shame. If you couldn’t discuss television with your friends, then there was nothing else whatsoever to talk about, except how dramatic and exaggerated one’s statements were! The only saving grace I had was The Simpsons, which, by some miracle, we were allowed to watch, though my mother frowned whenever Bart told someone to eat his shorts.
By the time I reached college and beyond, apart from The Simpsons and sometimes The Daily Show, I was as far from TV as I had ever been. Where I had fallen a step behind in high school, I was now trailing by a whole mile.
I tried to return to TV. I watched Friends and never laughed, not even once. This was also the dawn of reality television, when real people married fake millionaires and people who couldn’t sing judged hopeful singers. It was madness. The further away I had gotten from TV, the stupider it looked. It no longer made sense to me.
My old friend and teacher who had imparted so many values to me now no longer held any value at all. The fact that TV had done so much for me made its new, strange behavior even more hurtful. It was like screaming Who are you?! at a former best friend who had had the audacity to change.
TV thus became dead to me for many years.
But then the fortune teller happened.
After my visit with the fortune teller, compelled by the power of chicanery, I went home and made a list of television shows that others had recommended to me. Shows like Arrested Development, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Office. I put them on Netflix. I hadn’t watched a traditional sitcom in over a decade, and I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.
Arrested Development arrived first. I popped in the DVD. Words can’t really describe how I felt after watching the first season of Arrested Development, so I’ll just let an animated gif substitute.
It was awesome. It was smart. There was no laugh track or other stale tropes. It was humor so finely tuned and well written that you could watch it two, three, four times and catch new jokes, puns, and satire each time.
How had I missed this show? When did TV get so smart? Over time, I watched the other shows, too. Dexter had me riveted with its twists and turns. Breaking Bad was about as close to perfection as possible, yo. Some of the funniest (and most feminist!) moments happened on Park and Recreation.
There have been instances I’ve sat back on my couch after watching an episode of one of these shows, a bit red-faced. My hand had told the truth that day: I needed more TV in my life. It had a lot to teach me about plot, structure, and comic timing – all the features of good movie writing. And maybe I would try my hand at writing for television? It was a consideration I had never made before.
But it was more than this. These shows restored my faith in the idea that our entertainment can be worthwhile. Entertainment can be smart, can make a point.
When I had moved away from TV and tried to come back to it, I felt it had lost something. And maybe it had. Trash television is still king, and it’s of course OK if you enjoy it. Sometimes you just need to escape. But I had lost something, too: my ability to recognize television as a quality entertainment choice. TV, I discovered, didn’t need to be a complete waste of time.
TV and I get along better now. I still don’t get cable, but I am watching television shows regularly. And even though I haven’t had a Cheese Ball in several decades, I still sometimes want to hunker down with a good snack, sit two feet from the TV, and call out to my husband, “A new lab! Walter and Jesse got a new meth lab!”
Man. I love it when TV can make me feel like that.