Is it fair to pop off about a television show you’ve never seen? Must you remain silent at the water cooler when your colleagues are discussing a series that has never graced your TV screen?
In a world with 500 scripted TV shows and countless reality series, this is more than an academic question. No one has the time to watch more than a sliver of contemporary TV content, but chatter about TV is everywhere — and who wants to miss out on the fun conversations?
The extravagant lead-up to the debut of HBO’s “Westworld” and my subsequent aversion to it got me thinking about this. Initially intrigued by the premise of an adult theme park in the form of an old West town populated with humanoid robots, I was soon repulsed by warnings that the misogynistic male visitors raped, tortured and killed the female robots. I watched exactly one-minute of the series premiere before deciding, nope, don’t want to watch robot rape. And yet a lot of people were talking about it.
But not watching the series hasn’t stopped me from having a strong opinion about it. I know the show has intellectual and artistic ambitions and is ultimately supposed to be a meditation on artificial intelligence and the definition of humanity. And I gather that the violence perpetrated by the flesh-and-blood characters raises questions about whether humans are really all that great in the first place.
So based on watching just one minute of the show, my official opinion is this: All the intellectualizing in the world doesn’t justify the soul-deadening depiction of brutality that is central to the show. I just don’t want to become inured to violence by watching too much of it on TV.
Is that a valid opinion? I don’t know for sure, because, you know, I’ve never actually watched the show. The point is that I have a fairly well-informed opinion in the first place.
The reason I’m confident in my judgment is that when a new series makes a play to be a cultural event, a whole buzz-making industry swings into action. First comes the in-network promos, teasing the show months ahead of time. Then come the traditional media ads, followed by the online ads. Multi-episode screeners are mailed to the critics, who dutifully write reviews, first in legacy print publications and then online.
Then the podcasts begin – just about every critic has one, and if the show is important enough, it will get chewed over on dozens of them. There will be tweets while the show is airing, and about a week or two later the thumb-sucking opinion pieces will start. maybe there will be one in the New York Times Arts section, followed by a commentary on that piece in Slate. And if the network is really lucky, the show runner will be interviewed on “Fresh Air.”
In other words, if you’re interested in TV, you cannot escape knowing a lot about shows you don’t watch.
And once the buzz-making machine starts, there will be in-person discussions at work, at dinner parties, and family gatherings, when people desperate to find a connection start asking what each other TV shows they watch.
At this point you can either 1) interrogate the people who are watching the show and ask what they think, in order to make your opinions more fact-based, or 2) you can throw caution to the wind and start telling everyone else what YOU think, while carefully avoiding the fact that you don’t even watch the show. I’ve followed both strategies, and found that you can definitely get away with faking it, because there’s a chance that your interlocutor is faking it too.
How many people have opined about “Downton Abbey” even though they gave up during the first season? These folks probably have something to say about whether it was good idea to kill off Cousin Matthew regardless of whether they watched that episode. Similarly, leading up to the “Mad Men” series finale, everyone seemed to have a point of view about whether Don Draper should die at the end.
This strategy doesn’t work for just scripted shows. I’ve watched not a second of a “Real Housewives” episode, nor learned to tell the Kardashians apart — but I’m more than happy to weigh in on the merits of those shows. It’s not strictly ethical, but it’s not that different from commenting on “Fifty Shades of Grey” without cracking the book.
There are worse sins in the world than stealing other people’s opinions (maybe we should call it “plagiar-pining”). You could, for example pretend to have read “Moby Dick” in your book group. Somehow literary fakery seems worse than telling people what you think of Rick Perry’s performance on “Dancing With The Stars” without the concomitant viewing.
So I say, what the heck? Jump into the conversation. But don’t lie outright about watching something you haven’t seen. There are so many other ways to fake it. Just act like a politician.