I miss television.
Every evening there’s a peculiar aching in my soul for that ever-so-comforting routine of settling down on the couch to a good dose of mindless entertainment.
I suppose this is just the sort of scenario imagined by Ray Bradbury over 60 years ago in his brilliant but bleak short story, “The Pedestrian.” He describes a society in which
“Magazines and books didn’t sell any more. Everything went on in the tomblike houses at night now, he thought, continuing his fancy. The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multicolored lights touching their faces, but never really touching them.”
Though my house still has a smattering of books and magazines and other print media, I have to say the TV usually wins out when it comes to evening diversion. Which begs the question, am I, are we, just like these people?
In Bradbury’s dystopia, people are cut off from one another by this new technology—a very modern idea—but in fact I think his vision didn’t really come to pass until more recently in our postmodern era.
In a way, I think the regularity of weekly television shows, especially sitcoms, became incorporated into the social fabric instead of destroying it. We all talked about our favorite shows, identified with the characters, and arranged our schedules so we could watch Friends when it aired weekly.* I once attended a dinner party at which the conversation was well into the third inning before I realized everyone was talking about TV characters instead of real people. So in a way TV served to connect us by giving us shared stories and experiences, albeit totally voyeuristically.
Though I wasn’t able to participate in that particular conversation (thank God! it was about soap operas), I think this is the kind of television that I miss. The weekly installments, the familiar people, the pleasant escapism, even the delayed gratification of waiting a whole week to find out what happens next.
Part of this is due to the fact that I now live in Hong Kong, where the paltry offerings of the two English-speaking channels do little to assuage the aforementioned ache. I’ve always been too skint or too lazy to get cable, and the only alternative is the Chinese channels which offer such delights as game shows featuring contestants in ruffly green leprechaun costumes (yes, that is what I am watching now with my Cantonese-speaking roommate.)
But it’s also because the way we watch television has changed so drastically. Now it’s on our phones and iPads and computers, and we can get it whenever we want, wherever we want – on the train, in bed, ______________. It’s no longer a shared experience, with families or friends sitting down together to catch a show on TV, but rather an totally individualized experience that feeds our desire for instant gratification, just like eating a perfectly-proportioned individual-sized candy bar might satisfy your sweet tooth. Consumed and forgotten.
Now Bradbury’s vision has come to pass, it seems, since each of us can now choose to have our own flickering blue screen to stare at, as we cease to remember that others around us exist.
*Or at least that is what I would have done had I been allowed to watch the show regularly. In reality the only shows that escaped censorship were things like Mad About You (usually tame, anyone remember it?) and Home Improvement (inherently family-friendly).