Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The Serial Never Gets Stale

The week after our first child was born, my wife and I watched the entire first season of The West Wing on DVD. I tell myself we did it because our emotional vulnerability made us susceptible to a good drama. That, and newborns sleep a lot. Babies can, no lie, sleep 20 hours a day. Read Dr. Spock if you don’t believe me. 

We also have a son now, and I can’t remember if he was born during our viewing of The West Wing Season 4 or Season 5. After awhile, they all blend together and are hard to remember, aren't they? I’m talking about the TV shows, not the kids. 

The shock value of my son and daughter being born (nudity, bad language, adult situations, etc.) will not ever be forgotten. If we had it on home video, it would be rated NC-17. So why, when we admit with guilt what we were doing during those first precious days, are we not being chastised for our behavior? 

Instead of telling us we’re horrible people with out-of-whack priorities, people say things like, “Yeah, I've really been addicted to that new show Heroes,” or, “My son and I got caught up watching Prison Break last year,” and even, “I took time off work to finish watching the last two seasons of The Sopranos. Do you have coffee? Seems I forgot to sleep last night.” 

This collective insanity is the product of DVDs and Charles Dickens. Dickens, one of the most popular writers ever, released his stories in weekly or monthly serial form. The first installment of The Pickwick Papers was released in April of 1836, and the final installment of his last completed book, Our Mutual Friend, was released in November, 1865, 8 months before his death. 

It is said that American fans would stand on the docks in New York, waiting for his latest installments as they arrived by boat. Only after their serial release were Dickens’ stories compiled into books. 

Now, I’m not saying The West Wing is as good as Great Expectations, but doesn't this sound familiar? A very popular story is released weekly and is later compiled into a book. A very popular TV show is released weekly and later compiled on DVD. As a result, there are people waiting on front steps around the country for the mailmen to deliver the next Netflix, just like New Yorkers waiting for the boat to deliver the next chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. Hollywood is the ultimate copycat. 

Let me confirm that my wife and I are not horrible people – we’re just like all the other sheep being sucked in by good shows in a really convenient format. People are suckers for a good story and always have been. The convenience factor makes it even harder to resist. There’s a lot of garbage on TV, but most of what’s being released on DVD is the best of the best. Notice the absence of any reality TV in box sets. 

I do worry that casual TV watching is dead. Unlike a basic sit-com, enjoying most of these new shows depends upon seeing the episode before it. The Sopranos, Oz, Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Entourage, The Office, Prison Break, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Heroes; I've heard they’re great, but I can’t just randomly sit down and watch. I wouldn't have any idea what was going on. I might as well watch soap operas in Spanish, or worse, legislative committee hearings on C-SPAN. 

The categories are being redrawn. What kind of viewer are you? 

The Completely Obsessed Viewer - I watch when my shows air, rearranging my life to accommodate the schedule, never daring to break the routine. I camp out in front of Best Buy the night before any of the DVD box sets are released. I live for of the “bonus” or “extras” disks, and other than the trips to Best Buy, I don’t get out much. 

The Binge Viewer – I try to see the shows when they air, but I’m more focused on watching the DVDs in grueling marathon viewing sessions. I invite my friends, but most stop coming because they can’t endure it. Mail sits unopened. So do the window blinds. Appearance and personal hygiene during these sessions is a problem. 

The Casual Viewer – as stated before, moderation is no longer possible. 

The Non-Viewer - I give up completely because I have no idea what’s going on. I try occasionally to watch, but it is no use. I tell people that watching DVD box sets is a fad no different than collecting Beanie Babies, or following a low-carb diet, but people don’t listen. I live a normal, fulfilling life, and still, I feel left out. 

See? You’re either in or you’re out. You know or you don’t know. There is no in between. For us, I fear that our West Wing experience is a sign that our fate is sealed. Television has us in its clutches. 

Like the cast of Lost, we are in a strange world from which we cannot escape. Help us. We are afraid of what will happen if we don’t press the (play) button. We’re getting less and less interesting as people, less and less functional. Help us to live in the real world again. Help!

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