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american-horror-story-roanoke-twist

With the huge ongoing success of “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story,” “Stranger Things 2”  “It” and “Get Out,” I’m tempted to say that horror is having a cultural moment, except that horror is always having a cultural moment.  There is hardly an era in which this supposedly disreputable genre hasn’t had a massive audience.

The popularity of movies that scare the bejeezus out of us goes back to the silent era, with “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Nosferatu.”  “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” were among the first blockbusters of the talkie era.  And every decade since then has had its own variation on horror movies.

As with any genre, there’s always a definitional issue with what is and isn’t horror, but classic horror seems to be about scaring viewers deeply enough to get their hearts pumping, using horrifying situations that involve a supernatural or non-rational event.  A scary movie with a psycho killer is a thriller.  A scary movie with a ghost is a horror movie.

TV is a relative latecomer to horror.  Given that horror exploits viewers’ revulsions and terrors, the powers-that-be used to believe that it was not suitable for TV, where unsuspecting kids might be watching with their kindly grandparents and end up scarred for life.  Those concerns seem hopelessly antiquated now, though, when any child with a smartphone can easily call up the most horrific videos of ISIS atrocities.

There were early TV shows that attempted to creep audiences out and scare them — within reason.  “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were occasionally disturbing but always kept in line by network censors.  It wasn’t really until 1990 that a truly frightening horror series made it onto the air:  “Twin Peaks.” That David Lynch series is usually not included in the horror canon, although it contains all the genre elements including fright, eeriness, and supernatural explanations.  Among its other impacts, that series did demonstrate that there was an appetite among many viewers for creepy dramas.

Horror as delivered by “Twin Peaks”

Before “Twin Peaks,” TV’s aversion to horror was that the genre concerns itself with a fearful topic that is rarely appropriate for a device that sits innocently in a living room – death.  And not just the kind of death you see on a medical or crime show, where it’s sad when someone dies but at least they’re dead. No, horror reflects a profoundly unsettling death where the natural order is disrupted and everything we thought we knew about the subject is turned upside down.

The barely submerged fear that that there might not be a heavenly afterlife explains the enduring fascination with vampires or zombies — beings that were once dead but are now living – or inanimate creatures or animals that become animated with supernatural power.  Consequently horror is populated with ghosts, monsters, possessed children, werewolves, demons, Satanism, gore, vicious animals, evil witches, sadistic clowns, and cannibals.

The rise of cable TV and its niche targeting, combined with the loosening restrictions on televised violence, have created the opening for TV horror.  After decades without any truly terrifying TV shows, we’ve been deluged with them: “Penny Dreadful,” “Bates Motel,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Stain,” “Scream Queens,” “The Originals,” “Slasher,” etc, etc.

Personally, I think that horror is ill-suited for television, or at best a watered-down experience of watching horror at the movies.  Going to the movies is a proactive choice – you get out of the house, drive to a destination, pay money for tickets and find yourself in a dark space with a massive screen.  Usually this is an event that you plan with friends – maybe it’s even a group bonding experience like riding a roller coaster.  In other words, movie-going is an immersive event where the experience can be over-powering.  It gives you a shock that reminds you you’re still alive.

Watching TV is completely different.  The room is well-lit, the screen is smaller and half the time you’re watching by yourself and distracted by your smartphone.  It’s a solitary, not a social event and it doesn’t have the same impact as watching in the theater.  Viewers will frequently scream out loud at a horror movie, but rarely scream at home.

At yet, horror is very popular on TV.  There are people who watch murder, mutation and mutilation week after week.  All the philosophical justifications for horror – that it provides a cathartic release from death-related anxiety – melt away when watching horror transforms from being an occasional thing to a weekly or even daily event.  How much catharsis does a person need?

There’s a legitimate concern that too much horror makes people numb to it and in need of bigger and bigger doses, like any sensation junkie.  And at a time when there are no cultural overlords to impose order, who knows where it will end.  Let’s hope it’s somewhere short of live executions and murders.  We’ve already got the Internet for that.

 

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Football nfl_120607_wg

Here we go again.  We’re only a couple of weeks into the new football season and already everyone’s wringing their hands over the state of America’s favorite sport and television’s most important broadcasting product.

The games are uninspired, the ratings are weak, the players are domestic abusers, and the President of the United States is calling for a boycott.  This is a major issue for television because football is one of the last places where advertisers can reliably expect men to watch their ads in real time.  Football is also one of the remaining rationales that many families give themselves for not cutting the cord (even though most games could be watched live over-the-air).

This is a dramatic turnaround from just a few years ago when it football was still gaining in popularity and appeared to be television’s bulwark against the encroachments of the digital world. Of course what goes up must come down and it was inevitable that some marginal fans would eventually peel off and move onto the next big fad, but football’s decline has been so precipitous that it can’t all be the fickleness of fans.

Many of the explanations offered this year are the same as they were last year.  For example, the Colin Kaepernick National Anthem protest against alleged police racism metastasized to a full-blown political controversy during the off-season when Kaepernick couldn’t land a job, even as a back-up quarterback.

This has put the NFL in the worst possible situation.  The (mostly conservative) white men who are the sport’s core base are still furious that football allowed itself to get embroiled in a political correctness controversy in the first place.  But black activists and the media keep the controversy alive by alleging that the NFL owners have conspired not to hire the one-time Super Bowl winner because he’s become such a lightning rod for the Black Lives Matter issue.  No one was happy – and that was even before President Trump has weighed in with his usual brew of grievance, divisiveness and vitriol.

It’s a surprise it took Trump this long to recognize that the anthem boycotters were pushing a hit button.  I would guess that he doesn’t even follow football so didn’t appreciate the furor until ESPN’s Jemele Hill’s ESPN called him a racist, which launched a feud with ESPN that spilled over into football itself. Regardless of why he decided to take on the NFL, his comments threaten to cause schisms in America’s one true religion – watching football on Sunday.

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But if the National Anthem imbroglio is turning off fans who don’t want to think about politics while they’re watching football, the ongoing revelations about the impact of football-related concussions is turning off fans who worry about the their own personal morality.  These fans always knew that football was violent but it wasn’t until players started publicly dying of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that they began to ponder their own complicity in cheering each violent hit.  And it didn’t help when Tom Brady’s wife revealed that even he’d suffered concussions, leaving us to contemplate the specter one of the country’s most glamorous athletes not being able to remember his name some day.

It’s not that Americans have suddenly become pacifists, though.  The biggest sporting event of the summer (if you can call it that) was the Floyd Mayweather/Conor McGregor fight, in which millions of Americans paid $90 to watch a retired prizefighter pummel a mixed martial arts fighter who’d never boxed before.  Given the gimmicky nature of the pairing no one could claim to be enjoying the “sweet science” of finesse, balance and strategy that supposedly lends a patina of respectability to boxing. Nope, this was straight-up bloodlust.

If anything, football’s problem with violence isn’t that it’s too violent but that its near monopoly on controlled aggression has been broken.  For years, Sunday was the one day of the week when working stiffs could get a catharsis by watching other guys brutalize each other on the gridiron. Sure, there was the occasional spinal cord-severing injury that resulted a player becoming a lifelong quadriplegic, but in general, the players reveled in hitting and being hit and the viewers loved it watching. Somehow, having the players wear helmets and pads kept us from feeling bad about the three or four players who needed to be carried off the field each game.

But as any casual view of “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead” knows, there’s a lot more violence on entertainment television now than there is in sports.  To say nothing about video games or YouTube videos where you can watch an actual, not just a metaphorical, beheading.  And social media now enables frustrated guys to channel their rage as Internet trolls when they might have simply spent Sunday afternoons yelling “Yes!” every time someone on the opposing team was knocked unconscious.

Football isn’t going anywhere, but it seems passé compared to basketball.  The league’s owners, led by their doofus Commissioner, seem out of touch and concerned only with protecting their investment.  Football will probably remain television’s biggest draw for years to come but it also seems to have entered a period of slow decline.  Whether that will be good for the soul of America is an open question but it will definitely be bad for television.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twin Peaks the Return

Twenty-six years ago David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” broke the mold for what a television series could be. No one had ever seen anything like it, but in the ensuing 26 years the rest of the television universe almost caught up with Lynch, creating dozens of high-quality, mysterious, quirky shows like “Lost,” “Fargo” and “True Detective” that were imbued with the “Twin Peaks” DNA.

When Lynch agreed to produce one more season of “Twin Peaks” on Showtime, his fans wondered whether he’d try to top himself or settle for a nostalgic update of the beloved characters’ lives (as in, say, “The Gilmore Girls”).  Well, “Twin Peaks: The Return” wrapped up on Showtime last weekend and I can safely say that once again Lynch has delivered something that’s never been seen on television before.  I definitely don’t understand what it is I just saw or what Lynch was trying to say except that it was profoundly emotional, beautiful, perplexing and spellbinding.

“Twin Peaks: The Return” seemed to be about the age-old battle between good and evil with a heavy dose of free-form spirituality.  Somewhat surprisingly, Lynch seems to embrace old fashioned traditional values.  Sinners who give themselves up to lust, greed, cruelty, misogyny, or drug-use rarely come to a happy end, and the old-fashioned virtues of love, kindness and bravery usually triumph, even in a world of profound pain.  For all their thrashing around, evil people are frustrated in their desires.

But if the themes are old fashioned, Lynch’s storytelling techniques are revolutionary – for television at least.  With “Twin Peaks: The Returned” he essentially introduces modernism to television.  Modernism as a philosophy and aesthetic has been around for over a hundred years, of course.   Think of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” which nearly caused a riot at its premiere. Or T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” or anything by Picasso.  Modernists believed that traditional forms of art were insufficient to tell stories in the modern age and created new, often-head-scratching techniques to communicate the absurdity of the 20th century.

As the most mass of the mass mediums, television never had a modernist period.  With limited broadcast time and the expense of supporting nation-wide networks, television almost always opted for traditional storytelling, falling back on increasingly tired tropes developed by cinema and the stage.

Lynch began to introduce some modernist touches with the original “Twin Peaks”: a dream world with a dancing dwarf, a one-armed man, a giant, and other creatures from another dimension who talked backwards.  Plus all that complicated plotting, languorous pacing, eerie shots of stoplights.  But as weird as some of that was, the show still stuck to standard plot- and character-driven driven story structures.

With “Twin Peaks: The Return” Lynch smashed all traditional storytelling.  Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that he delivered two different series under the rubric of “Twin Peaks: The Return.”  One was a more comprehensible story that climaxed at the end of episode 17 in the Twin Peaks sheriff’s office.  The other was a meditation on death and reality that culminated with a second ending in episode 18 that seemed designed to satisfy only David Lynch himself.

Lynch’s most obvious innovation was the show’s glacial pacing.  He submitted a script that would normally be shot in nine episodes but ended up being stretched out twice as long.  As viewers, we’ve become accustomed to faster and more frenetic cuts, but in the new series Lynch would let the camera linger past the limit of what you would have thought was the breaking point of your patience.  The very first scene in the first episode shows a young man watching an empty box.  Depending on your perspective, this was either mind-numbingly boring or mesmerizing, which is why I ended up watching the series alone after my wife quickly bailed out.

But the slow pace was nothing compared to the surreal symbolism, weird fixation on dreams and numerology, depiction of evil spirits, and most of all, the Black and White Lodges, those extra-dimensional spaces of good and evil that seem to have some kind of connection to Native American mythology.  For sheer craziness, probably nothing on TV will ever match episode eight, which turned out to be the “Twin Peaks” creation story. The episode is impossible to describe except to say that it includes extraterrestrial creatures, the birth of the atomic age, flying orbs of good and evil, profound disorientation, and the Nine Inch Heels.

He also introduced dozens of characters who appeared in just one scene, only to have them disappear just when we began to care about them.  Ultimately, if you wanted to survive the show you could only stop thinking and give yourself up to the experience itself.

Will the new “Twin Peaks” usher in a wave of experimental television?  Clearly new business models are emerging that would support it.  Showtime’s CEO and President David Nevins told TheRinger.com’s Andy Greenwald that the show was a business success – even with tiny linear ratings — because it drove more new subscriptions than any show in the network’s history. I hope future showrunners take the right lesson from this, though.  It’s not enough to be weird.  David Lynch is a supremely talented filmmaker with a strong moral and artistic vision who was willing to do some fan service to keep viewers happy, but ultimately delivered the show he wanted to create.

In the end, I think “Twin Peaks,” will be a unique television experience. Many shows have returned after long absences but only David Lynch had the ability, clout, fan base and imagination to deliver a very personal but perplexing artistic vision that strayed far from the core of the original series.  There just aren’t that many artists who can pull this off.

 

 

binge-viewing-1

Last year Deloitte reported that 73 percent of Americans binge on television programming.  This report was dutifully publicized by the media despite being either: 1) obviously wrong, or 2) meaningless.

At a time when only two-thirds of Americans have high-speed Internet how can three-quarters of them be binging?  As it turned out this was an online survey that excluded those viewers most likely not to binge, so it was maybe not exactly representative.  Also, binging was defined as having watched three episodes of show in one sitting, presumably even just once — a remarkably low bar.

Under this definition, people have always binged TV.  Most cable channels have run 24-hour marathons of favorite series that easily allow you to spend a couple of hours watching many episodes of the same show.  Further, ever since the days of VCRs, you could record your favorite shows and watch them in bulk.  So watching a lot of episodes of one show in a single sitting is not new.

But that’s not binge-watching as currently understood.  According to the dictionary, binging is as “an act of excessive or compulsive consumption.”  It is associated primarily with food or alcohol – and not in a good way.  If you can’t stop eating or drinking you’ll be sick.

In other words, binge-watching is a compulsive, addictive experience like eating salted peanuts. True binge-watching requires two elements: serialized multi-episode narratives, complete with cliff-hangers; and a technological solution that enables easy serial viewing on the consumer’s timetable.

Those trends came together about five years ago, between Part One and Part Two of the final season of “Breaking Bad,” when millions of non-viewers collectively realized they could catch up on the first four-and-a-half seasons by streaming them on Netflix during the interregnum before the launch of the second half of the season.   Soon after that Netflix launched “House of Cards,” and, instead of making the episodes available week by week, dropped all 13 of them at once.  Since then Amazon has adopted the drop-them-all-at once model too and the libraries of the pay-TV channels like HBO and Showtime have all become available for binging.

While I appreciate the virtues of immediate gratification and will sometimes binge if given the opportunity (as I did with last summer’s “Stranger Things”), I appreciate and prefer a traditional week-by-week roll-out, especially for a high-quality show.  There’s something delicious about the anticipation of waiting a week for the airing of the next episode. A once-a-week show becomes a collective experience you can share with your friends and others.  You can live tweet it as it’s being aired, read the recaps the next day, listen to the podcasts, and talk about it at work around the digital water cooler.

None of that is possible with a binged show.  I’ve never once read a recap or listened to a podcast about a Netflix show.  And you can’t even talk about it with friends until everyone’s finished the season.

There’s an artistic problem with binging too.  It’s nearly impossible to absorb all the information that’s being thrown at you if you watch multiple episodes at once.  My family watched the last five episodes of “Justified” over two nights and the next day I could only remember the final ten minutes of that sprint to the end.

Netflix has its own very successful business model, to be sure, but I think history has shown that the best way to build popularity for any show is through word of mouth, which is a lot easier with a show that everyone’s talking about at the same time.

We only have to look at “Game of Thrones” to see how it works.  It wouldn’t be half as popular if all ten episodes per season were dumped simultaneously.   What made GOT a sensation was its slow build through on-one-one conversations and a steady two-month barrage of tweets and media references.   When a show like “Game of Thrones” captures the public’s imagination, audience interest builds toward a climax at the end of the season.  This is in contrast to almost all Netflix series, in which “buzz” peaks soon after the series is released.

There are, of course, exceptions like “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” or “Transparent,” which showed that word of mouth can work for bingeable shows too, but there are hundreds of other Netflix and Amazon series that never enter the public consciousness because they are watched only by their targeted niche audiences.

That might make good business sense for the streaming services but for those of us who have never heard of them, it’s a lost opportunity.

Clearly binging is here to stay because it’s so popular in our impatient society.  Still, take a minute to mourn the continued erosion of the communal experience that TV once was, and hope for the continued existence of the weekly serialized TV show in some form or another.

 

 

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.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children Watching TV in the Past (5)

When people look back and romanticize the summers of their youth, they usually rhapsodize about swimming holes, the beach, boardwalks or picnics, but for me, what I most remember about the summer is the many many hours I spent in front of the television set.

It’s a rule of thumb that TV viewing declines in the summer when people start spending more time in outdoor leisure pursuits.  That’s not the way it was in our house.  Freed from the shackles of homework and all those hours of sitting in school, my sister and I plopped ourselves in front of the TV for hours at a time.  It’s a law of physics that all matter will eventually succumb to entropy, but there is nothing quite as entropic as a kid left to his own devices in the summer.

This was back in the day before parents planned every second of their kids’ lives.  And both my parents worked long hours so we didn’t have a lot of supervision.  Eventually at some point during the day, we’d go outside and run around in the back yard, ride our bikes or find some other kids to play whiffle ball with, but first we had to conserve our energy in front of the TV set.

We watched lots of cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Wood Woodpecker, Might Mouse), game shows (“The Price is Right,” “To Tell the Truth” and “The Match Game”) and syndicated sitcoms (“I Love Lucy,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “The Danny Thomas Show.”)  In other words, not the most elevated programming.

And when we’d go to visit my grandparents on Nantucket we’d log even more hours in front of the TV. In fact, it was on Nantucket where I saw my first color TV.  Every Friday night we’d go down to my great-grandfather’s house and watch Mitch Miller’s show in color.

I wince now to think of those Nantucket visits, but there we were in a summer paradise and instead of chasing girls, exploring the island or learning how to catch fish, I’d be hanging out in my grandparents’ living room watching the tube.  How well I remember the summer I insisted we return from the beach by 3:00 pm because I wanted to watch “Dark Shadows.”  The chagrin of it all.

When I became a parent myself, my wife and I made sure our son spent his time more productively.  Even though the cartons he wanted to watch seemed vaguely educational or socially redeeming, we still restricted his TV time and signed him up for plenty of summer activities.

Of course TV today is actually the least menacing screen.  Video games are violent, computers provide easy access to porn, and smartphones are addictive.  My wife and I were lucky that smartphones didn’t become pervasive until our son was in high school.  If I were currently the father of a young child I’d probably WANT him to spend more time watching TV, if that is what it took to keep him away from the other screens.

But when all is said and done, I wonder if all this anxiety about screens really matters.  Left to our own devices my sister and I watched a lot of TV during the summer but we still turned out to be productive members of society.  Eventually I grew out of game shows and cartoons and started reading books.  To namedrop a big one, I even read “War and Peace” a few summers ago, so my powers of concentration were not shattered by a childhood of watching “I Love Lucy” reruns.  (On the other hand, who’s to say, maybe if I’d had the right stimulation I might have WRITTEN my own “War and Peace” instead of simply reading it.)

I still watch a lot of TV in the summer, but now it’s baseball, Netflix, and Shark Week.  Unlike my youthful self, though, I would never watch TV during the day, so that must be a sign of maturity.  Maybe when I’m retired I’ll recline on the couch in late afternoons and reacquaint myself with “The Andy Griffith Show.”  That would be a real second childhood.