The advent of TVD

Sam Anderson apparently lives his TV-watching life the way I do:

HBO’s recent evolution from a place where you could watch Strange Brew 12 times a day into a gushing fountainhead of televisual high art has made my life complicated. Though I’m an avid watcher of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and Deadwood, subscribing has always seemed decadent and a little beside the point: I don’t want another channel, I just want the shows. This means that I live, by choice, in a permanent HBO-lag: My viewing occurs entirely on DVD, a year or two behind schedule. I’ve become the undisputed king of the obsolescent spoiler: While the culturally savvy are fretting over Tony Soprano’s coma, I’m telling people about the ducks leaving his pool in Season 1.

Part of the reason I’ve been absent from the airwaves this week is that I’m plowing through the first two seasons of The Wire (thank you, Netflix!). Anderson aptly refers to this phenomenon as “living in different cultural time zones.” It’s not so bad—I’m reading my first William T. Vollmann novel, and I’m not looking over my shoulder to see if anyone else is, too—but Anderson delineates the conversational problems that can erupt:

Six Feet was particularly tough to fall behind on: Though it was never the most subtle show, it might have been the most emotionally engaging. Its characters were realistically messy—constantly groping after some awkward species of adolescent vitality, locked into relationships teetering on the brink of murder-suicide—and it often took big risks (tortuous near-deaths, an occasional absence of likeability) that inspired lots of polarized public chatter. In those eight months, I began to feel like an aesthetic amputee, haunted by phantom pains of the missing season. I had to avoid certain Web sites, avert my eyes from the paper’s arts section, and walk away from potentially revelatory conversations. Inevitably, details leaked out: I heard rumors of a major character’s death and some kind of mind-blowing season-ending montage. My wife and I endured awkward silences.

This, folks, is my life, for both premium and regular TV. So, if you tell me how the final season of Arrested Development or the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm went, I’m kicking your ass. Television is the medium that most Americans are fluent in, and where a significant portion of our watercooler talk and cultural references come from, so I feel like I’m always a step behind everyone else.

Mostly, this doesn’t bother me. But it does bring attention to a sort of social disconnect that TV viewers 20 years ago didn’t experience. Practically everyone wondered who shot J.R. Ewing. Practically everyone watched the last episode of M*A*S*H. Perhaps that’s not good—there are, after all, better ways of spending our time—but it did mean that TV was common culture, a lingua franca that we could all use to communicate. What does it say about us that, less than 30 years after everyone saw Princess Di get married (or at least had an opinion about it), our most common denominator as an art form is so splintered in its viewership?

I have no idea. I explored what Anderson calls “TVD”—watching TV shows as if we were reading (i.e. at our own paces, on our own schedules, with the freedom to move backwards, forwards, and zoom in at will)—last year. But I’m curious for other impressions. What are we losing by living in cultural time zones? Are we even doing so? And what might we be gaining?

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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3 Responses to The advent of TVD

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Okay, this isn’t some genius comment except to say, me too. And, I’ve just discovered Deadwood (thanks to DVDs) and I LOVE IT THAT SHOW IS FREAKIN’ BRILLIANT. Season two can’t come soon enough! (Or is that Season 4 now?)

  2. Wax Banks says:

    Sir –
    I’ve written about this same phenomenon but forget where/when. (And I just moved The Wire up my own Netflix queue – give me my life back!!) It seems to me that there’s a tradeoff involved that’s serious and has real consequences for how we perceive our chosen entertainment media. I watch a lot of TV on DVD – HBO shows in particular, but that’s also how I experienced Lost‘s comparatively excellent first season and the complete works of Joss Whedon (save for Buffy Season Seven). Lost makes a good illustrative example: the momentum of those ~20 hours was unbelievable; I watched the final 14 in a single mind-boggling sitting. That meant revelations hit me one after the other without interruption, and the visceral impact of the final storylines (the baby’s arrival, the hatch opening, the boat) was heightened.
    On the other hand, what was lost was the sense of life-pervading mystery that accompanied the show for fans during its first run. The questions that were for me answered five hours after being asked might have haunted viewers for two months last year, and that meant I never followed my own thoughts down productive blind alleys – a feature of serialized shows that the creators of Lost obviously rely heavily on, since their own story consists of long dead patches and red herrings punctuated by Big Events. Watching the last season of Buffy I had to sit on my hands for months at a time wondering how the final confrontation would play out, and imagined it a hundred ways before it finally arrived. The genius of that finale was that it ably sidestepped all of the fans’ expectations, and its power grew in contrast.
    I’ve decided that the reason TV shows encourage fan-fiction in a way that films don’t is that the fans have to do something to sustain the imaginative tension of their chosen narratives during the 167 hours a week that they’re not watching. Whereas a film ends and our responsibilities as active viewers are done, a series of dramas regularly refreshes our old concerns and plays against our long-term memories – with their dreamlike shapes. Why is Star Wars so deeply ingrained in our psyches? Forget Joseph Campbell: it’s about the fact that over six years that story was chewed over by a generation of kids (I was a little too young to be in on the frenzy, though I apparently adored RotJ in theatres as a kid). Star Wars foreclosed imaginative engagement (to a degree) by basically ending in triumph, but we think highly of Empire in part because it had a lot of time to sink in before its enormous questions were answered. (And it still does – how many people watched RotJ for the very first time immediately after screening Empire for the first time? They get separated and the gulf between them is the story.)
    Watching Deadwood and NYPD Blue on DVD I’ve found a good compromise – a batch of episodes a week or so (sometimes slower), so that I get a sustained punch, a stretch of time with these extraordinary characters, but I still have to wait for resolution of the Big Stories. Joss Whedon calls surprise a ‘holy emotion’ (and has harsh words for ‘spoiler whores’ who want to know how everything ends without, y’know, seeing shows through to their actual ends), and patience-for-narrative might be called a holy action: as viewers we wait at a certain pace for each work of art. It’s not like we fast-forward through long shots in 2001 to get to the dialogue; our unconscious mind needs time to do its work.
    So on balance, I’d say that DVD is a good thing – it opens up dramatic texts to close reading, as you ably wrote in your earlier post – but that discipline can provide our imaginations with a structure (not necessarily once-a-week viewings but something analogous) that’s much more germinative than what the visceral rush of a single sitting provides.
    (And to close with the example of Lost: I’ve been disappointed with Season Two overall, in part because I didn’t have to sit around all summer mulling over questions about the hatch and the Others, so I hadn’t lived with the characters very long when the story took its ‘introspective’, static turn this year. The bloody big block of fear and energy that was the back half of Season One was a great experience that afternoon, but as the little details and allusions piled up, they began to overlap and jockey for mental space in a way very much counter to what weekly viewers had experienced. Imagine each such narrative element as an organism expanding, breeding, consuming space and mental resources: the process produced some marvelous mutant hybrids, but no one idea-creature grew in my mind to its full size. Best, I should imagine, to see things both ways. And I’m really looking forward to seeing Season Two in a day. I don’t think it’ll hold up. But I’ll likely see movements I can’t detect right now.)

  3. Wax Banks says:

    [S

    Walter at Quiet Bubble is mulling over TV-on-DVD; I left a long comment and wanted to duplicate it here, as it bears on stuff I’ve written about before. He’s looking at the social implications of asynchronous dramatic entertainment (shows on

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