Out of the Box
Did you catch the last episode of The Sopranos? I missed it. Worse yet, I missed the entire Sopranos phenomenon — have never seen a single episode, nor even a fraction of one. Matter of fact, there was another program on that night I wanted to see: The Tudors. A friend had told me this was great fun: a glossy, botoxed updating (he said) of those BBC historical dramas of the early 1970s. I loved those: Keith Michell lurching around in cloth of gold, cheeks padded out like a hamster, Glenda Jackson snarling "God's death!" at Robert Hardy. I wanted to see The Tudors.
I didn't get to, though. Both The Sopranos and The Tudors are shown on HBO, which we don't have. My cable company wants a $4.95 monthly premium fee for HBO, and we don't feel like paying that. It's not, or not mainly, because we are tightwads. We're just TV minimalists. We have only one set in the house, a 15-year-old Sony XBR in the living room. We don't watch it much.
This isn't so much anti-TV snobbery as just a failure fully to internalize the TV habit. Both adult Stragglers grew up in TV-free environments. To be sure, we both subsequently made friends with the medium. There is plenty of TV I am glad I watched. For amusement, there was that great mid-1970s CBS Saturday evening line-up of Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett: for instruction, Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series: for narrative pleasure, those marvelous BBC costume dramas. Middle-aged human beings often slip back towards childhood mental habits, though, and I watch much less TV now than formerly.
That puts me at a disadvantage in conversation. I seem to be the only Sopranos virgin in the U.S.A. Even the founder of this magazine has written a column about the show. Being TV-challenged has recently left me at a loss in political conversation, too. Never having seen a single episode of Law & Order, I had to rack my brains to recall anything at all about Fred Thompson.
More than that, I am aware that having an attitude about TV is singular in itself. Any attitude at all, I mean. Pretty much nobody under fifty has an attitude towards TV, any more than they have an attitude towards the sky. TV is a thoroughly integrated part of their consciousness, internalized at a very early age. Their infant brains re-wired themselves to incorporate TV in the a priori background of existence, along with (according to Kant) space, time, and arithmetic, and thereafter they have never needed to think about TV, in fact are probably unable to.
People like Mr and Mrs Straggler, who grew up without a TV in the house, are stuck with having an attitude about it. TV is a thing we notice, a thing we think about. Back when most adults had, like us, had TV-free childhoods, TV was a topic of argument, a focus of opinion — not merely for the content of particular programs, but as a thing in itself. It featured in stories and novels, as a character.
Bruce Jay Friedman wrote some particularly memorable stories about TV-the-thing back in the 1960s. There was The Killer in the TV Set, for instance, in which the family TV served as a conduit for malevolent spirits or aliens who first hypnotized the viewers, then ate them. In another Friedman story, For Your Viewing Entertainment, a newly dead person, in order to win his angel wings, had to work for a week as a TV variety-show emcee, in a special program broadcast to just one viewer, whom the ghost-emcee had to scare literally to death. I wonder how a TV-raised person would see these stories? As quaint, I suppose, and slightly absurd; as I felt when reading recently about the very first portrait photographers, gazing with fear-tinged wonder at the tiny, exact images of their subjects' faces.
The best known literary description of the TV generation gap is in John Cheever's 1967 novel Bullet Park. Eliot Nailles, the suburban protagonist, has a son who, at age nine, becomes hooked on TV watching. The father-son dialogues that follow have echoed through a hundred million American households.
"Do you have any homework," Nailles asked.
"A little," Tony said.
"Well I think you'd better do it before you watch television," Nailles said. On the tube some cartoon figures were dancing a jig.
"I'll just watch to the end of this show," Tony said.
It ends with Nailles throwing the TV out of the house. "It landed on a cement paving and broke with the rich, glassy music of an automobile collision." Do you have children, gentle reader? If so, don't tell me you didn't feel a warm throb of approval reading that. My old XBR is too heavy to lift, let alone throw, or it might long since have gone the way of Eliot Nailles' set.
Now TV technology is going through one of its small revolutions, to something called "high definition." TV sets are also becoming more like computers, with the corresponding rats-nest tangles of wires and connectors. A friend of mine recently bought one of these new models — a Samsung with plasma screen, high definition, and so on. He showed me the instruction book that came with it. The book has sixty-five pages, all in English. That doesn't include set-up instructions, which are in a separate book! (Which my friend did not read. He paid a technician to wire the thing up.)
Presumably my cable company has some magic that will allow me to continue watching these new high-definition broadcasts on my low-definition XBR. I am attached to the old beast, and shall hate to part with it. My exemplar here will be British writer Richard Ingrams, who was TV critic of the London Spectator back in the 1980s. Ingrams insisted on doing all his TV watching on a black and white set, long after everyone had switched to color. (He also made a point, at least once in every review, of telling us how much he hated TV, and what rubbish all the programs were.)
When at last my XBR gives up the ghost, I shall have to suppress my dislike of all new things and buy one of these wide, flat, strangely thin high-definition numbers. One of those you hang on the wall, perhaps. Oh, well. There will be one advantage, at least. If I get angry with the thing, I shall be able to do what John Cheever's hero did, without slipping a disk.