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?