Flickers From Its Glassy Eye: Thoughts on Television

Illustration by Fiona Byrne

Many memories of my childhood and teenage years, both good and bad, involve television in some form or other. A number of these are of specific programmes (The Simpsons, The Crystal Maze, Aaron Carter’s Flaccid Jungle), while others relate more closely to the ritual of watching the TV (staying up to the early morning to watch The Larry Sanders Show during my college years, watching a pre-launched Channel 5 through a haze of fuzzy static).

To approximate, in fact, just how many hours of my young life that I wasted starring into the shiny side of the incandescent story machine would take all ten fingers, a calculator and—after losing count and mashing my fist into the calculator’s keys in frustration—somebody to work out all the sums for me. So, at almost a complete guess, I’ll hesitate to say that I’ve wasted about 14,500 hours: a plausible figure, even if it seems impossibly high, as it is said that the average person spends four to five hours a day watching television.

Largely for my mental wellbeing, nowadays, I try to watch the same amount in an entire month. Yet there was a time in my life, between the ages of about eight and seventeen, when my weekly schedule resembled the inside of the Radio Times. It was the possibility that something good might be on next coupled with the inescapable nature of the medium that kept me watching, hanging on for just a few more minutes, in case Robert Killroy Silk were to inexplicably transform himself into somebody who wasn’t Robert Killroy Silk.

Unique in the sense that it can be enjoyed even in a deep state of laziness, television will always make a tempting distraction for the bone-idle. It seems unlikely, for instance, that many people would watch something like The X Factor if it were a stage show that had to be attended, rather than something that can be absorbed torpidly through osmosis. But because the series is unavoidably in people’s living rooms, it frequently racks up more viewers than there are people in the world who own shoes.

The negative effects aside, it’s for those rare moments when a small glimmer of brilliance flickers from its glassy eye that make watching the television worth putting up with. Only something as sharp and as fast-paced as The Simpsons or Seinfeld could work as a TV series; only in this format could Alistair Cooke’s America have reached so many people and included so much insight. Such programmes are surely proof that television isn’t always as culturally insightful as a coma. In fact, watching those classic episodes of The Simpsons (taped on Betamax, no less) back in the early ‘90s provided me with a first-class education in popular culture, one that has doubtless helped to shape me into the person I am today—i.e. a mentally-maladjusted, misanthropic nerd.

If good TV has played a part in shaping my twisted character, it seems only likely that bad TV has also influenced me to some degree. Surely all that time watching Alistair Stewart hosting Police, Camera, Action! has taken its toll: the hypocrisy of Stewart, a convicted drink driver, hosting a programme about road safety; the demonically shouty way he’d address the camera; his hilariously overblown cadence. Certainly, his presenting style must provide some explanation for why I shot put words out of my mouth rather than speak them, like a man attempting to force his own bowels out through his nose.

Shows like Police, Camera, Action! were a favourite of mine during my teenage years, when I developed something of a fondness for unintentionally amusing rubbish. But nowadays, I don’t have the tolerance for such shows. The older that I’ve got, the more I struggle to enjoy television at all, in fact; and now that I spend a fair portion of my time reviewing TV programmes, casual viewing has become a thing of that past. Consequently, I miss out on what I described earlier as the “ritual of watching TV”: not merely the programmes themselves, but the entire experience that comes with watching the tube, which is something of a culture all to itself.

Alas, I can’t foresee myself watching television in the traditional way ever again–at least not in my own home–as only when I visit somebody else’s house do I truly get a taste of what used to be a natural part of life for me. Over the past few years, the internet has largely replaced the role that television used to fill, and I suspect that this is also the case for other people my age. My generation, it seems, will be the last to enjoy television in the form in which it is familiar to me. Those who have been born within the past decade will likely grow up in a world where one can choose what they want to watch, as it becomes increasingly unnecessary to have to wade through rubble to find a gem.

In an ideal world, this shift could give viewers the opportunity to filter out inane rubbish and enjoy a medium that’s ripe with cultural brilliance. Yet it is more plausible that the change will create an environment in which people no longer take chances on new content, instead preferring an enormous catalogue of tried and tested programmes that they already enjoy. Naturally, the big shows will always do well, but it’s the small ones will surely be cast into obscurity: the under promoted documentaries and late-night sitcoms that, several years ago, one would discover almost by accident while frantically channel hopping.

As the digital boom proved, when hundreds of channels popped up shortly after the millennium (The Advert Channel, Bravo, Friendly TV), sometimes choice can be deceptively limiting, which I suspect is the case here. Gone are the days when, to find TV gold, it was necessary to first put up with the apricot face of Robert Killroy Silk. In the present day, selectiveness means that it isn’t to put up with anything on television anymore. Even the idea of having to stay up to watch a programme seems increasingly archaic.

I have often considered myself to have a love hate relationship with television, although, as the medium continues to evolve, I can’t help but look back on all that time I wasted gazing into the magic rectangle with much fondness. It has always been a mixed bag of nuts: some of them delicious macadamias, even if most of the others appear to have already passed through the bowels of a dog.

Never before has this been truer of television, in spite of its uncertain future. As recent programmes such as Breaking Bad have proven, the tube can dazzle even the most dismissive of critics with its artistry, even when the rest of its output resembles something that a dog has left on a rug.

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