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Monthly Archives: August 2017

TV Watching Couple

There used to be a saying that “The family that prays together stays together.” In other words, regular church attendance was thought to be good for stable, happy families.  When religion went out of fashion, social scientists then said families should eat dinner together.

But I’ve got a different idea – families should gather around a TV and watch a favorite show.  There’s nothing as disheartening as a house where the kids are hunched over their laptops in their bedrooms while dad is following football in the living room and mom is watching home improvement shows in the kitchen.  That’s a family where everyone is in his or her own world.

I’m not advocating a return to the Fifties, when each home had a single television and the whole family had to watch the same homogenized programs.  But with the amazing catalog of content available today it doesn’t seem too much to ask that families find at least one TV show per night to experience together.

Admittedly this is easier when you have fewer kids or children that are near in age.  My wife and I only had one child, and until he was six or seven he never sat in front of a working television without one or both of us by his side.  This smells of over-parenting in retrospect, but TV was always something we affirmatively did together – just one of several activities we shared.  It was not a babysitter or a way to pass time.  But if you have a handful of kids instead of just one, it’s not as easy as it was for us.

Watching TV with your kids doesn’t need to be a sacrifice once we’d separated the wheat from the chaff.   In fact, children’s TV can be delightful.  We discovered that “SpongeBob Square Pants” was hilarious, “Arthur” sweet, and “Hey Arnold” touching.  Soon enough we were watching “The Simpsons,” “Seinfeld” and then “The Office.”  On the very last week he left home for good and moved into his own apartment, we binge-watched and finished the final season of “Justified.”

There are many benefits to a family TV hour: you can make sure your kids are watching age-appropriate TV; the kids come to understand that they are important enough to spend time with; everyone in the family learns to compromise; the family develops inside jokes and special catch-phrases; and the content stimulates unforced discussions that you might already want to initiate (or sometimes NOT want to initiate – I remember all too well the day my son asked me what Viagra was, thanks to a commercial during a baseball game.)

Once the kids are out of the house, shared television-watching can also be good couples’ therapy too.  I’m not making this up either – there was an actual academic study published in the mighty Journal of Social and Personal Relationships that said watching television together can strengthen the closeness of a romantic couple, particularly if the couple do not have a lot of common friends.  In effect, television characters become their shared friends.

It is a truism of marriage counselors that married couples should find shared interests to prevent them from drifting apart as they grow older.  I remember reading one article that praised a canny wife for taking up golf so she could play with her husband.  Today it would be offensive to suggest that a wife should take up a husband’s hobby – why doesn’t he get into gardening to make her happy for cripes sake?

Watching television together is not a marital panacea but I know from experience that it’s an easy way to generate a shared experience.   Five years ago my wife and I made a pact that we would watch at least one show per night after dinner.  We’ve recently started to follow “Game of Thrones” from the beginning (better late than never!) and it’s been an intense bonding experience as we’ve tried to figure out the characters, the history and the alliances.  Before that it was “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Americans.”

Please note: this video-based couples therapy doesn’t work if all you’re doing is sitting on the couch and passively turning on the TV to see what’s plying.  This needs to be “appointment TV” – a show you affirmatively want to watch and interact with.  It doesn’t have to be high-quality TV, though.  Even just kibitzing and second-guessing the answers in “Family Feud” would work if it’s an interest that a couple shares.  Because in the end, it’s not really the TV show that matters; it’s the commitment to spend time together on an experience that interests everyone in the family or marriage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern-Family

Feeling a little down about the state of the world?  Wouldn’t it be great to turn on the TV and spend an hour just laughing?  Well, forget that.  TV has never offered as many comedy options as it does today and yet produced so few actual laughs.

We are constantly congratulating ourselves for living through the Golden Age of Television, but I don’t think anyone can really argue that we are in a Golden Age of TV Comedy.  There’s no contemporary equivalent of “I Love Lucy,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Seinfeld.”  The closest we have today to those classics is “Modern Family,” which is heading into its eighth season and feels more than a little long-in-the-tooth.

The problem isn’t confined to network TV.  Basic and premium cable are awash in comedies, as are streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.  Almost every time I turn on Netflix I’m notified of a new sitcom that seems mildly interesting but usually isn’t.  Part of the problem is that many of the new comedies seem to be targeted at niche audiences – black single women, the transgendered, lesbians with mastectomies, older divorcees, teens, Hispanic single moms, African American college students, etc.  It’s hard to find a show with universal appeal.

To be fair, there are a handful of shows that are actually fresh and funny: “Veep,” “Silicon Valley” and “black-ish” are of-the-moment and hilarious, but none are particularly highly rated, and they ask the audience to think too much ever to penetrate the consciousness of Middle America.

An even bigger challenge in comedy is that the most highly respected sitcoms are barely comedies as all.  I’ve written about this before, noting that pain, humiliation, and self-involvement are now considered mainstream sources of humor.   Shows about drunken, self-abasing cartoon horses (“Bo Jack Horseman”) or pathetic education administrators who burn down their boss’s house (“Vice Principals”) might tell us something are human nature when it’s pushed to the extreme, but it’s definitely not going to give us a respite from our daily cares.  (See the “BoJack “trailer below for an example of a very good but very dark “comedy.”)

And it’s not just sitcoms that have ceased to be funny.  Late night TV was once the province of laid-back amusement – a place to mellow out with a few laughs before fading away for the day.  No more.  Now it’s the spearhead for the Trump resistance.  Stephen Colbert used to be a sharp and acerbic political critic, but now he’s so bitter about the Trump presidency that he is no longer funny except to Trump haters.  (I do have to admit, though, that “Saturday Night Live” was the exception to the rule this year, producing hilarious and much-talked about spoofs of the President and, most memorably, Sean Spicer.)

Meanwhile poor Jimmy Fallon, who deliberately tried to avoid political controversy, isn’t funny anymore precisely because he seems out of touch.  It’s a crazy conundrum – you’re not funny if you talk about politics too much, but also not funny if you pull your political punches.  No one seems able to find the happy medium – maybe because the country is too split.

One place from where you should be able to squeeze out a laugh or two is from one of the hundreds of stand-up specials on HBO, Showtime, Netflix or Amazon and yet I find this a generally unsatisfying experience.  There’s a reason that stand-up works best in front of a live audience.  The crowd laughs and you laugh too, even if the joke isn’t that great.  But watching alone in your living room with all the attendant distractions?  It better be riotously funny.  The last stand up special I really enjoyed was Bill Cosby’s 2014 appearance on Netflix (sigh).  I did appreciate the achievement of Dave Chappelle’s two recent specials but they were so risqué that I was embarrassed to be watching them even though I was the only one home at the time.

In the end, I think the problem might actually be that there’s too much comedy content.  How many more comedy shows are there now than in the 1980s, when TV fractured into specialized channels?  Five times more?  Ten times?  But there isn’t five or ten times more comedy talent than there used to be.  Writers who used to be the fourth-funniest person in the writers’ room are now showrunners themselves.  Comedians who would be barely scratching out a living 30 years ago in comedy clubs or improv companies now have major production deals.

Maybe we’d be better off with less comedy and more desperate struggling comedians.  That would be worse for them but better for us.

(By the way, the exception to everything written above is “The Big Bang Theory,” by far the most popular sitcom on TV and a throw-back to 1970s TV with its punchlines, laugh tracks, easy-to-follow plotting and three-camera production values.  The show is not really for me, but audiences seem to like the tried-and-true formula.  It’s shocking to me that no one seems to be able to duplicate it.)