By Matt Gordon
Right now, my wife, father-in-law, and I are watching through Better Call Saul. It is a terrific show, and at our two-episode per week pace, we should finish it by Christmas. I wanted to watch Black Bird but we don’t have Apple TV+. To that shameful admission, a friend offered us their log-in information, which sets off the moral dilemma: to steal or not to steal . . .
They don’t use their log-in all that much and Apple is a HUGE company—like they need the extra money from us. Speaking of extra money from us, we use their overpriced phones. And I am pretty sure they make them wig out once the contract is paid-in-full so we have to get a new one, so they sort of owe us this . . .
On and on it goes—as we join the streaming rat race. What began as a cable subscription has turned into death by a thousand cuts: Apple, Disney, HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and on and on and on. You need each one in order to be a fully functional 21st century human. Daily, someone presents you with, “Have you seen Death Plaza? OMG, it is so good. It will wreck you. It is on Fuseplex+.” You’ve never heard of either, but now the Baadar-Meinhof phenomenon is in full effect, everywhere you look is Death Plaza. You subscribe to Fuseplex+–it is only $9 a month for the rest of your existence. Not bad! You enter your credit card info and maintain your standing in society. This is the cost of being, after all. The way it is and the way it has always been . . .
But wait! It hasn’t always been this way, has it? This is new. It happened, like, last week. In times past, you watch the show or two you liked at an appointed time. Thursdays at 8 PM. Mondays at 9. Everyone talked about the same shows because there were only about three decent ones out there at a time. You’d choose one of those, add a guilty pleasure (like Death Plaza) and spent the rest of the time gardening or reading or washing your children. But these days we act like consuming entertainment is our oxygen. We used to use our weekends to binge drink, but now binge watching is the drug of choice. Some studies suggest that the average American spends 2 months a year (or 15 years over the course of their lifetime) watching television. If that is true of the average American, my guess would be that soon we will have become below average Americans, the lot of us.
Television used to be, in itself, a sort of lazy past-time, almost looked down upon. That is why “couch potato” has never had a positive connotation. But now it is a badge of honor. I listened to a podcast recently where four people spent 45-minutes just discussing what they had seen and chiding others for what they hadn’t seen. I was into it, too. Around minute-40 it hit me: What is happening to us!? And then another darker thought: In my own life, can I even do anything about it? Can I just say no to a streaming service? Can I choose a book over the remote? Can I take a walk? Can I play a board game with my wife rather than our default being to assume our well-worn places in the living room to while the nights of our life away watching people on a glowing screen pretend to be and do things?
Movies was my answer to those questions.
I used to watch a lot of movies. In my college days, easily a handful a week. That decreased a bit over the years, but still a favorite past-time was watching all the Oscar nominated films, all the popular releases, all the big-name performances. Often, I’d sidle down to our basement and disappear in the darkness, the screen the only light in sight.
I’m not sure if I realized the change that had happened until this summer. I was on a flight and pulled out my phone to peruse the in-flight entertainment options. I selected The Batman. I watched ten minutes or so of it and then thought, My neck hurts looking at this tiny screen. Is this really what I want to do for the next two hours? I closed the screen and my eyes, and turned on the sleepy cadence of an audiobook.
And here was the realization: I don’t watch movies anymore! Maybe three-to-five a year, down from three-to-five a week. I started having kids about five years ago and I became too tired and too busy to give an extra couple hours away to anything but these children or sleep or putting out the fires these urchins had started around my home. It wasn’t really a personal stance against movies or time-waste or mental decay—life just sort of happened.
And life just sort of keeps happening. My world didn’t collapse—in fact, it was hardly noticeable. Yes, I don’t get some references. Yes, I can’t join some conversations (when people animatedly talk about pretend things they saw someone pretend to do). Yes, I’m confused if I happen upon an awards show and say things like, “Who’s that fresh-faced whippersnapper?” without realizing it is the Di Caprio of the moment.
And you know what? I’m totally fine with this.
I’ve been thinking about that 15 years—you know the time I’ll spend watching TV if I live to my late-seventies. Life-wise, I’m about halfway there. So 7.5 years—that’s what I’ve spent, give or take. Malcolm Gladwell made famous a research study about the 10,000 hours it takes to gain mastery over something. The original study made it clearer that this number represents a certain intensity and direction in those hours, but still, 10,000 hours holds true. My 7.5 years of TV time—time spent Saved by the Bell and in The Office, solving the puzzle, Pat and Breaking Bad—amounts to 65,700 hours. Time enough to gain fluency in French, dominate a cello, paint the Sistine nearly twice, go to infinity and beyond in friendship, and love actually.
I’m not swearing off TV. Good stories are worth it. Necessary. I am swearing off another full 7.5 years, though, where the only gain in sight is the mastery of the ability to say, “Did you get to Death Plaza yet? OMG!”
What are you watching is the question du jour. More often than not, for the time I have left, I’d like my answer to be: life.
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