Making T.V. watching purposeful again

Our favorite medium is extremely impactful, but how do we engage with it?

by Kate McCarthy

Back in 1970s Belvedere, California, my mother was often left to her own devices.

It was the indulgent “‘Me’ Decade,” and Leslie Dreyfous spent nights curled up, finding comfort in the varied fare of the time — from the salient and smart (Mary Tyler Moore, M*A*S*H), to escapist kitsch (The Love Boat, Donny & Marie), to oddly psychedelic children’s programming (H.R. Pufnstuf, Lidsville). That last one is entirely about a town of hats that talk — it doesn’t hold up.

These shows were a comfort to my mom when she was a lonely kid, but they were also a special occurrence. She always hoped her shows would come on, or that she’d catch her favorite re-run. It was a special interruption from daily life.

Years later, Mom showed us many of her old favorites, consequently creating weird retro kids, like myself, who gleefully recognized John Amos as Gordy the weatherman on Mary Tyler Moore and Kunta Kinte from Roots.

Mary Tyler Moore, in particular, held a special place in my heart as I headed off to make Minneapolis my new home — just as Mary Richards does in the opening credits set to Sonny Curtis’ lyrics. “Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?” I just about cried when I finally found her famous hat-tossing statue on Nicollet Avenue. “You’re gonna make it after all.” Thanks, Sonny; thanks, Mary.

I look back on those family nights — my single mother sharing comforts with her young children — as a weekly Sunday night treat. Now, I don’t think twice about indulging in TV. In fact, it often acts as a numbing agent.

I’ll admit here in print, with great embarrassment, that I’ve found a way to actually watch The Office while I shower — just prop your computer up on the sink. Am I that desperate to fill every moment with stimulus? Am I that repelled to spend a minute alone with my own thoughts?

Whether it’s Veep, Silicon Valley or any one of the great shows, watching TV has become so habitual that it’s become a chore. There’s hope that “one more click or touch might open onto something to redeem the overwhelming monotony in which one is immersed,” as Jonathan Crary writes in his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Where is the excitement?

I am my mother’s daughter. I spent my 2011 high school winter dance blissfully crying while watching 30 Rock. Special moments of refuge — or celebration or escape — give TV immense staying power.

It’s hard to break out of the pattern of watching TV as default, but it’s a worthy challenge for us to find a specific purpose in TV-watching. Or at the very least, let’s bring back that talking hat show.