After watching the first season of True Detective on HBO I found myself in a very contemplative state, but probably not the state the show intended, and certainly not the state Rustin Darkness Yeah! Cohle lived his days in. Part of the fun and excitement of watching a show like True Detective, or Breaking Bad or Lost for that matter, is engaging with others who are sharing the experience with you. You talk about your favourite characters or scenes, you complain about the show’s missteps, you theorize about how it will end; but the conversation is no longer isolated to the office lunchroom. If you enjoy diving into the internet as opposed to merely surfing on it, there is no shortage of memes, articles, podcasts, or communities available for your consideration.
The questions I began asking myself were, am I losing my ability to draw my own conclusions about what I’m watching? Am I digesting so many other viewers’ comments that I no longer have my own thoughts, but rather an amalgamation of theirs? Are my attempts to expand my cultural horizons actually stifling my own creative ability? Even if I disagree with what I read, is it then tainting my viewing experience? Is the level of enjoyment I get from listening to or reading the opinions of others reducing the amount by which I enjoy watching the actual topic of the conversation? These questions have been troubling me, so I thought I would explore the topic a little.
The genesis of this for me (and likely scores of others), was Jeff “Doc” Jensen’s weekly Lost previews and recaps on ew.com. Never before had I come across such intense research and theorizing devoted to one show (especially on an episode to episode basis), and it completely changed the way I approached the program. Lost was the first show I ever binge-watched, as I needed to catch up on the first two seasons, and it was the first show I remember spending more time thinking about after each episode than I did during. By the time I discovered Jensen’s work I was already hooked on the show, but his articles took it to another level. Despite Lost‘s ultimately disappointing conclusion, it was a show that begged you to believe that the creators had a grand plan, and that every facet of the show would eventually be explained; Jensen’s work did nothing to persuade the reader/viewer otherwise, and it is a virtual guarantee that he gave more thought to the imagery, plot, and characters than Cruz and Lindelof did. The fact that Lost, plot-wise, was more of a fly by night operation, thus proving most of Jensen’s work moot, had little to do with the long-term impact of the experience; I would no longer be able to approach TV drama as passively as I had in the past.
I’ve been living that recap life since Lost, and although it has opened my eyes to things I may have missed otherwise, it has undeniably changed how I’ve viewed television for the past several years. From Lost to Mad Men to Breaking Bad to Game of Thrones and most recently True Detective, I feel like I am bringing more to the table each episode from a critical perspective, but most of what I’ve brought is appropriated or flat-out stolen. It has got to the point where I honestly question whether or not I’m the asshole in the room pseudo-bragging about the symbolism of some set-piece or the t-shirt so-and-so is wearing or that call-back to that scene from the first season, just because I heard Andy Greenwald or Chris Ryan or Emily Nussbaum talk about it the day before. When I talk to people about television who I can tell do not consume it the way I do, I feel equal parts astonished and envious, as I can’t imagine why they would eschew all of the available information out there while simultaneously admiring their self-imposed isolation. I would like to believe I’m capable of digesting others’ opinions while maintaining my own original thoughts, but lately it has felt like my own internal critic is being overwhelmed by the strangers I’ve unsuspectingly let in the door.
If I’m not naive to the shrinking violet my inner voice has become, then why do I continue to bombard it with the views of others instead of letting it live? My hope is that the communal experience of watching a show week-to-week, and engaging in all the discourse that goes along with it, provides me with more ongoing vitality than almost any other group experience left in our society, and that a well-fed intellect is more useful than an alienated one. My fear is that I am just an intellectual coward afraid to take ownership of my own theories for the fear of being wrong or to be perceived as simple, and that I would rather stump for someone else’s theory than craft one of my own. First world problems, I admit.
So, how much value do the legion of previews, live-tweets, and recaps bring to my experience? Would I enjoy watching these shows as much without any outside commentary? Would I be better off saving them all until the end of the season or series to then compare against my own notes? After some reflection, I realized that some of my favourite memories from the best television shows of the recent past are the moments directly tied to something I read or heard before or after the episode. The holy shit! moments for me are never just the big reveal or the unexpected twist, but whether they hold true to what I (or someone whose opinion I trust) had come to believe; the conversation holds more meaning for me than the show itself.
It’s a bit like watching sports, if the television show is the game itself; how much enjoyment can you possibly get from it if you aren’t rooting for one of the teams? Granted, the relative quality of the art itself is important, but how much value can it hold if it doesn’t inspire a deeper connection or understanding? Just as a sports fan picks his favourite teams over time, I’ve cultivated my own team of trusted writers, critics and other resources; they are a representation of my feelings about television, and their opinions are an extension of (and sometimes, the impetus for), my opinions. In watching television now, I find myself rooting for my team of connoisseurs to be validated to somehow justify my support of them. Although I admit they sometimes take me places I wouldn’t choose to go on my own, twenty-five years of Dallas Cowboys fandom proves that I’m capable of extending the benefit of the doubt equally across mediums.
Which leaves me with the issue of originality. I don’t believe that I’m simply a critical drone who enjoys extolling the wisdom of others, but I will admit that the balance between my own opinions and those gathered from others is too often tilted towards intellectual theft. Perhaps this isn’t really the fault of too much media consumption, but rather a simple case of my own cognitive laziness; the time I’ve spent writing this post is far more than I’ve ever dedicated to thinking about a particular TV show, let alone a single episode, and that should probably tell me something. If spending a bit more time contemplating the things I’ve watched (and perhaps even writing it down once in a while), leads to an increased sense of ownership over my opinions, then there’s a victory in that.