Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My Life with Television (and Why I Can't Live Without It Today)

Television and I have a long, strange history. I'm not talking about the proto-NYC punk band that gave the world Marquee Moon in 1977, though I know I'd probably garner instant street cred if Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell were the subjects of this blog post and not what is possibly the most disrespected and maligned electronic device of the last 60 years or so.

As a kid, I had a short attention span when it came to television, which meant the top 30-minute sitcoms of the day -- The Jeffersons, Three's Company, One Day at a Time, Alice, Too Close for Comfort -- were perfect for me. I threw a few hour-long non-crime dramas into the mix (Dallas, Dynasty, Knot's Landing, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island -- then, as now, my taste in TV was decidedly lowbrow, the opposite of my taste in movies) -- but I was always happiest curled up in a corner with a good book, which was usually a Presidential biography. I was a Nerd with a capital N before they all put away their reading material to obsess over Game of Thrones.

In college, I was too busy studying and partying with my friends to care about what was on TV, which was why I completely missed so many television staples that were launched in the late '80s and early '90s, like Roseanne, Home Improvement and The Wonder Years, the latter of which my first college roommate, Todd, did watch, presumably because he saw himself in the main character.

My first three years in New York City, when I lived in that tiny East Village shoe box, I didn't even own a TV. My first boyfriend, Derek, brought his over at one point, though I don't recall ever watching anything on it, and I couldn't wait for him to haul it out of there after we broke up in the autumn of 1993. I finally splurged on my first TV set in the summer of 1995 (a brand-new $300 20-inch Sony model that would remain with me for the next 11 years), but the only thing I can remember watching on it that September was Melrose Place on Monday nights at 9.

When my TV and I moved from Avenue B to West 14th Street on October 1, 1995, I ordered my first-ever cable subscription and slowly added more shows to my viewing list over the next several years. This was when I picked up my obsession with The Golden Girls via Lifetime's back-to-back episodes every weeknight at 11. I only recently kicked it in Tel Aviv, when I rediscovered Bea Arthur's previous TV sitcom, Maude, on YouTube.

My TV viewing habit remained sporadic and oddly specialized, which probably made me totally unqualified to be the TV editor at Entertainment Weekly in 2004, which my boss quickly realized and moved me into a section that was more suitable for my talents and interests. But the damage had been done: TV was now a fixture in my life, though more as a source of background noise than something to which I ever gave my undivided attention.

I never used TiVo and rarely got into DVRing, which was hardly surprising, considering that I'd used my VCR almost exclusively for watching movies, never quite mastering the art of using it to record TV shows, especially when I was watching something else. Not that I was ever actually watching anything. I rarely sat in front of the TV and focused on it. I was usually doing something more important, like surfing the Web, which had begun its gradual march toward becoming the new TV anyway.

A week and a half ago when I went to see the apartment that will be home until I move into my permanent digs on January 20, I didn't even notice that there wasn't a television set in it. I was too busy mentally comparing the cost of buying Wi-Fi vouchers at reception and purchasing a broadband modem and Internet bundles from one of the local providers. (As in Australia, South Africa is weird about the Internet, rationing it like water during a drought or food in a famine.) I was too busy checking out the air circulation from the open window that offered gorgeous views of Signal Hill and Table Bay in the distance, wondering if I could spend another month in Cape Town without AC. I was too busy picturing myself taking showers with a handheld nozzle.

"I'll take it," I announced after less than a minute of contemplation. Monet, the young woman from whom I would be subletting, was surprised that I'd decided so quickly.

"It's just what I am looking for." So was her tall, blond boyfriend, who was with her. But I wisely left that part out. TV was the last thing on my mind -- until we were leaving the building. The cute boyfriend asked me if I'd been reading everything I could get my hands about Nelson Mandela's passing the day before. I had told him that I'm a journalist, so one might have expected that I'd been reading more newspapers than usual or devouring all of the online tributes.

"A little, but mostly I've been watching the coverage on TV," I responded.

Which apparently reminded Monet: "There's no TV in the apartment. I don't watch TV. I hope that's okay." She said it with a hint of disdain in her voice. Of course, she doesn't need TV, I thought, looking at her boyfriend. I wanted to explain to her that watching TV is no different from going to the movies, a connection that is even more apparent now that you can do both on your computer. It depends on what you watch. But she was such a lovely young woman. Why rock our friendly rapport?

"Oh, of course, it is." I lied. After all, as Annie Lennox once sang (on a 2005 Eurythmics single), I've got a life. I go out. I see people. I see nature. I run. I go to the gym. Occasionally, I even travel. But despite the fact that I'd spent one month in both Berlin and Tel Aviv and barely turned on the TV sets in my rentals, and during my month in Rome, I pretty much watched only one channel, Radio Capital TV, which was more like watching the best oldies radio station ever, I liked knowing the TVs were there, even if they went unnoticed for days, or weeks, at a time. I'd begun to regularly acknowledge television again in Cape Town, though. Finally, I was back in a country where most of the channels were in English. It was especially perfect on those occasionally dreary rainy days when I wanted to set a mood that wasn't one of solitary confinement.

I probably wouldn't have bothered with it at all had it not been for the rationed Internet thing. Like so many people in 2013, I get most of my at-home entertainment online, whether it's writing in my blog, reading other people's blogs, answering emails, surfing the Web (and devoting very little time to Facebook, on which I probably spend an average of less than 15 minutes a day), or downloading movies and TV shows. I'm usually doing one to all of the above while I'm "watching" TV.

Even if I were the type to give TV my undivided attention, programming abroad is different from programming in the States. Most of the U.S. TV shows are shown weeks, if not decades, after they run in the U.S. TV in Cape Town is perfect for satisfying my '90s nostalgia, but the few current shows that I watch near-religiously -- three out of the four remaining daytime soaps (General Hospital, Days of Our Lives and The Young and the Restless), two nighttime serials (Revenge and Nashville -- whose winter finales both, curiously, featured a gay couple awkwardly reconnecting and a female character taking a bullet or two), a handful of cable series with mini-seasons (Girls, Veep and Episodes, if it ever returns), and the odd traditional sitcom (How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Hot in Cleveland, if it ever returns) -- I keep up with online.

That was easy to do in Berlin, Rome and Tel Aviv, where I had unlimited Wi-Fi usage, but in Cape Town, where a 20G bundle could set you back a cool 999 ZAR (roughly $100), I find myself limiting my TV downloading the way a parent might limit a pre-teen's TV viewing. I spend more time than usual in cafes, carefully picking out the ones with free Wi-Fi, so that I can at least download the latest episodes of my beloved soaps while working on my book. I've become the cliché I always hated: Guy in cafe, sipping on a beverage, while tap tap tapping away at his computer.

It isn't a pretty sight, but I get a lot of work done, which might not be the case if I was at home downloading an unlimited number of U.S. TV shows to watch later. Who said television isn't good for anything?

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