My Complicated Relationship with TV
When Orwell conjured the most invasive, pervasive mechanism of party control in Nineteen Eighty Four he created the telescreen. In Orwell’s novel of oppression the homes of Airstrip One are dominated, both psychologically and aesthetically, by a flat-screened propaganda machine that ensures you see exactly what the Inner Party leadership wants you to see. The telescreen also ensures that your walls do in fact have ears; transmitting at any time, your every movement or sound, no matter banal or intimate, to be assessed, and if your actions are deemed not quite right assuring you a trip to the Ministry of Love.
Today my home hosts four flat screen televisions. There is one each, in the bedroom, the office, the living room, and in my basement. The basement television is an especially unique one because its primary purpose is to display the chaotic, challenging world of my son’s video games. Sitting prominently in front of the 55” display, dead center is the KINECT, which allows for two way video and audio transmission. The only thing Mr. Orwell wasn’t prescient enough to anticipate was that I would clamor for the chance to spend my own money to purchase the appliances by which Big Brother would have a continual two way presence in my home.
None of the four televisions in my house are on very often to be honest. It’s not out of fear that the NSA is peering into my basement unbeknownst to me. Yes Orwell’s dystopia is regularly in my mind when I glance at one of the devices of glass and plastic, and after seeing Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour my mind is prone to contemplate the pervasive surveillance state we have come to live in, yet neither is my motivator for keeping the screens turned off. It’s much simpler than any of that.
I hate television.
I have confessed this to co-workers, to friends, to random people at parties. Between the twenty-four hour news cycle dominated by talking heads screaming at one another, deigning to call it “debate,” and the cavalcade of misery that professes to be “reality TV” not a day goes by that I don’t think to myself “bread and circuses.”
Sometime in at the dawn of the second century of the common ear the satirist Juvenal observed, “But what of the Roman Mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she condemns. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured Etruscan Sejanus; if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob that used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything, curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only, bread and circuses” (Juvenal). It was Juvenal’s opinion that the citizenry of Rome had given away their moral authority for the assurances of bread and entertainment.
I’m afraid we are no better off today – it’s just that our circuses flow into our homes. We needn’t even head to the coliseum. From Teen Mom to Fox News the populace is bombarded with television which serves to make them fearful, lets them delight in how much more functional they are than the people who live inside their television, and all of this, it seems to me, drives consumerism and bad behavior.
I sound like a true curmudgeon.
I hate television.
What I leave out of my anecdotal confession is damning though. I hate television because I love well done, smart, television.
It’s true. From the days of 3-2-1 Contact on PBS as a child to watching the brilliant Sherlock on BBC America I have a love for television that teaches me, that intrigues me, and that shows me something more than carrots and sticks intended to drive me out into a splurge of overspending and credit card debt.
I fell head over heels in love with the dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, or as it could have been subtitled “People Talking in Hallways.” I will turn off the lights and sit on couch with my wife and son to gleefully watch Benedict Cumberbatch display for a 21st Century audience the guile and brilliance of Conan-Doyle’s protagonist. I reveled in the laughter that belched forth from my adolescent son when I introduced him to Basil Fawlty’s farcical attempts to run a hotel, and I revel in the laughter he and I share now when we anticipate his inevitable question of Mrs. Richards, “Is this a piece of your brain.”
Television can be a thing of beauty when it is well done. It can bring us together to share in experiences, to have discussions about what we have seen and what it represents, whether explicitly or metaphorically.
I say it here for the first time; I hate television because I love it. When it disappoints me it makes me squirm. But when it makes me laugh, when it makes me think, or when it lets me know that canonical family traditions have successfully passed to the next generation I love it so.
Juvenal. Satire X. Translated by A.S. Kline. (2011). url=http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/JuvenalSatires10.htm#anchor_Toc284248932. Accessed 11 January 2015.
Christopher Brennan is an independent researcher, writer, and speaker fascinated by human consciousness and experience. His published work includes three books, numerous essays, prose fiction and poetry. He tweets as @RevFenian.