I grew up (I thought) in a non-TV household. My mom was against television—especially for kids— and as far as I knew, we didn’t own a set. (I found out years later my mom secretly kept a small black-and-white TV in the closet for emergencies and special circumstances, like news coverage of the Vietnam war, or Nixon’s resignation.) Anyway, despite having no TV of my own, I watched enough at friends’ houses, or during the one month every summer I got to visit my dad, that it wasn’t completely foreign to me. Even back then, I had some favorite shows, most of which were already in reruns. After all, my semi-forbidden TV viewing was very much catch-as-catch-can; I had no way to watch primetime shows on a regular basis.
For completeness’ sake (what other reason do I ever need?), I will document here the shows I watched regularly over the years. “Regularly” is the key word. I definitely had the TV on at other times, just not so religiously that I became as intimately familiar with the shows as the ones listed here. So without further ado—and broken down by half-decades—is my TV history:
As I said, most of the shows here I caught at friends’ houses or the one month every summer I spent with my dad. My first love was Saturday morning cartoon shows like The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Hour and the Tom & Jerry Show, and the semi-animated Shazam TV series. From there, I moved on to The Jetsons and The Flintstones. Sundays were not as fun for kids’ TV back then, but I always seemed to be up early enough to watch the wonky Christian stop-motion show Davey and Goliath.
My mom and I moved back East to New York in 1980, and by late 1981 I had moved in with my dad—partly because he allowed me to watch TV. With a set in my own room, this was my “golden age.” I still don’t know how I managed to read as many comics and science fiction novels as I did, let alone draw comics—and do my schoolwork! Not having a video game system helped, I guess.
Rerun staples of this period were M*A*S*H, Starsky & Hutch, Three’s Company, Taxi, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Honeymooners; while my primetime addictions included The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, Enos (!), The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs, Magnum P.I., T.J. Hooker, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, The Greatest American Hero, Cheers, Family Ties; and reruns of Three’s Company, Taxi, Diff’rent Strokes, Mork & Mindy, and of course M*A*S*H, which I was becoming obsessed with. Saturday Night Live was great during this period, and having a limited social life, I was usually home to watch it. I also had intense but ultimately unfulfilled dalliances with such short-lived series as Tales of the Gold Monkey (a blatant rip-off of the Indiana Jones films), Strike Force, V: The Series, and — I’m ashamed to admit it — AfterMASH. Oy.
During this time, Hill Street Blues was the first “grownup” show I got into. Every Thursday during the show, man_size and I would breathlessly call each other up during commercial breaks to glory in the latest segment’s “fresh illyness” (a tradition we continued through subsequent shows like NYPD Blue and Lost!).
I became an avid baseball and football fan during this era, so I rarely missed Jets games on Sunday afternoons in the fall & winter, baseball games on Saturdays in the summer, or the seasonal shows Monday Night Baseball and Monday Night Football.
These were my college years and (thank god!) I had usually had better things to do than watch television. I had a tiny portable black-and-white set in my room which I usually watched M*A*S*H reruns on. Otherwise, shows I managed to watch on a semi-regular basis were Moonlighting, Miami Vice, SNL, Thirtysomething and, until it really fell off in its last couple of seasons, Hill Street.
Having moved back to New York after college, I tried to get out more, and “real life” mostly kept me away from the TV. I also didn’t have enough money to afford cable. All the same, I managed to catch repeats of M*A*S*H (of course), Cheers, and Hill Street; and I watched Twin Peaks, Monday Night Football, and The Simpsons in primetime. Then, after an eighteen-month hiatus traveling around the world with Sari (no TV!), I got into NYPD Blue, ER, Friends (I admit it), Mad About You (I know), and Seinfeld once we settled in Chicago. I also saw a lot of free Bulls and Cubs games on WGN.
Transitioning during this period from Chicago to San Francisco to Provincetown, Mass, the only reruns I regularly watched were The Simpsons, but I became a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I also started watching Law & Order and kept my allegiance to NYPD Blue, ER, Friends, and Seinfeld. The Buffy spinoff series Angel debuted during this period, and I was a regular viewer of that show for two or three seasons.
Finally resettled back in New York, I severely curtailed my TV viewing. Now able to afford cable, ironically we decided we didn’t want it, and the network shows seemed to lose their allure. Due to lack of interest, I stopped watching NYPD Blue, ER, and Friends; though I happily discovered The West Wing, and stuck with Law & Order. I watched 24 for its first two seasons, before I got repelled by its gruesomeness and questionable politics. (And I admit to being the one person who actually saw the short-lived Friends spin-off show, Joey. For that, I sincerely apologize.) And I have been watching Lost from the first episode. I also eventually found out about the amazing HBO series Deadwood; and managed to catch that show on DVD.
Ironically still without cable, the shows I am most addicted to now are all non-network programs: Battlestar Galactica, Rome (now canceled), and The Sopranos, which I’m finally watching now that it’s over. To be fair, though, there are some good network shows: I still enjoy Lost, and I’ve been watching Friday Night Lights since day-one as well. (I also confess to watching the entire run of the thankfully canceled Aaron Sorkin show, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Lord, was that show a disaster.) I seem to have lost my interest in sitcoms, so even though at various times I’ve sampled The Office and 30 Rock, they just don’t do it for me. Shows that are intriguing to me but I have yet to really study are The Wire and Dexter, so a DVD acquisition may be in order…
Whew! Quite a compilation of mostly dreck and occasional brilliance. It’s interesting to look back on those periods and see how the shows reflected—and informed—my stage of life at the time. Like most people, I guess, I continually veered between desiring mindless entertainment and/or escapism, and then wanting something more meaty or intellectually challenging.
Although I’ve never considered myself a couch potato, there were clearly periods where I was addicted to the tube. All the same, I think my hours of TV watching pales in comparison to most other American kids of my generation. Still, I’ve often wondered if the fact that TV was so verboten early in my life made me need it to the point of obsession later on?
This is a question I have to ponder as I raise a child of my own. Already, Phoebe is automatically drawn to the bright colors and flashing images of the TV screen. So far, we’ve minimized her exposure to the tube, but eventually we’re going to have to deal with her active desire to watch it as well. One thing we can do is limit the available temptations by staying cable-less. But that’s not the final answer to the dilemma…