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Life Lessons

You Can Always Just Not Watch TV

Actress Dagmar reads book beside TV in old black and white photo
Graphic House/Getty Images

I am a lazy pile-of-crap slob who doesn’t do anything. I feel it’s necessary to establish this up front. I am not out here Exploring the Depths of Art. Nor am I pumping iron. I am not even getting especially good at video games. Just to be clear.

This week, across a certain cross-section of hyper-online media types, many people are watching a Netflix TV show called Emily in Paris, which I gather is about an unlikable American character who goes to France for a job and posts Instagrams from there. The crucial thing to know is that none of the media types watching this show, so far as documented by their posts about it, like it or enjoy watching it or regard it as good. In fact they dislike it, sometimes vehemently but more often not, and regard it as bad. And continue watching it.

This is not a new or uncommon phenomenon; it long predates Emily in Paris and goes well beyond it. I’m talking about the idle filling up of the gaps in one’s day or one’s life with TV shows; the taking as a given that, naturally, one will watch and discuss the new TV shows, even if they are lame or uninspired or downright shitty. The passive bedrock assumption that of course the TV will be on, and tuned to a regular rotation of TV shows, even if they are not good or even any particular variety of trashy fun. The adoption of weird mental rubrics—the hate-watch, the irony-watch, the show that is bad as a thing to watch but good to have on in the background, the show that is bad but has a lobotomizing effect so that you can reliably just straight up lose hours of your life to it—to uphold the basic premise that of course you will be watching TV.

Netflix in particular seems to have made an entire business model out of this. There are always so many new shows; if you try one and it doesn’t grab you, there are 12 more brand-new shows for you to try. By the time you’ve tried all 12—naturally this will take some time, as you can only fit so many new shows into your longstanding rotation of shows—there are 24 more new ones. The idea is to continually shove more new TV shows into the space between a viewer’s brain and the thought “What if I just turn the TV off” until that thought disappears over the horizon. Until the idea that any given TV show may be optional has entirely obscured the idea that watching TV is optional. Or, bleaker and worse, that even if a given show is bad and you don’t enjoy watching it, the thing to do is not to turn it off, but to quickly binge your way through it, so that you can replace it with a better one.

A growing portion of shows do not even aim to be “liked” or “admired” purely as viewing experiences, as pieces of filmmaking or storytelling, but rather aim to be metabolized into Discourse in the form of gifs and blogs and tweets about how annoying or exhausting you find them. The reason to watch is so that you can feel like you are participating in the same conversation as the people you follow online; that sort of viewership comes to the same thing to the network or production company, whether you’re watching the show because you like it or because you regard it as pure shit but can’t think of anything else to do. The pandemic makes you more vulnerable to this, as you’re confined to a lonelier and more remote orbit of the physical world. Watching the same show as another person becomes a way—the easiest and most direct way—of simulating the feelings of having any kind of human relationship with them.

All of this combines to produce the extremely weird, bleak, nihilistic relationship that many people now have to television: Not finding it particularly enjoyable, enriching, or rewarding, yet filling huge chunks of their waking day with it. Making a tacit commitment to watch hours upon hours of a given show not because they find it fascinating or thrilling or even particularly engrossing, but because it’s merely not bad and they don’t know how it ends yet. Sticking through to the bitter end of a bad show they hate out of a belief that this prevents the hours already sunk into it from being a total waste. Watching episode after episode of a series they hold in absolutely no esteem, filled with hateful, despicable characters (or in the case of reality TV, what you’re meant to regard as hateful, despicable but real people) in whose company no one would ever choose to remain for longer than a few seconds, for nothing that more closely approximates a reason than that at the end of each episode, some time has gone by.

This all seems very scary and bad to me, a sour and paranoid crank who has followed a grand total of one contemporary show (I caught up to Game of Thrones prior to its sixth season because I wanted to know what the hell Tim Marchman and Kyle Wagner were talking about, and watched it through to its hilarious end) in the past 20 years. Yes, you may be saying, but literally everything else also seems scary and bad to you. Maybe you should relax. I probably should! But before I climb back into my woodland grave and heap dirt back over myself, I just wanted to say: You can always just not watch TV.

You can always just not watch TV! You can not watch TV while you do something else. You can not watch TV while you do nothing! You can not watch TV just sort of in general, unless and until something comes on it that gives you an affirmative reason to watch. Your default life-state during idle moments can be not watching TV.

But what about when I am bored?, you are asking. You can read a book when you are bored. You can listen to some music when you are bored. You can write in a diary or journal. You can meditate. You can look out a window and try to identify birds, plants, architectural styles, cloud formations. You can even stare at a screen, by actively seeking out some great and famous movie you’ve never seen before and watching it. You can do drugs and stare at the tiles on your bathroom floor and go on a vision quest. You can dress appropriately for the conditions and go for a walk outside. You can pick your nose for a while. TV can even be an item on this menu—you can affirmatively choose to turn the TV on for a discrete chunk of time to watch a particular thing you find affirmatively interesting, and then turn it back off again. You can endeavor not to be bored anymore, instead of just passively letting TV roll over you like a stultifying fog until you fall asleep or some external force intrudes to stimulate your senses.

I know that this comes across as snobbery. I have no standing to advocate for a life of elevated pursuits, here. In two- to three-minute chunks over the past decade I’ve idly given probably the rough equivalent of several months of my life—my only life! My at best not all that long life!—to scrolling through tweets for no reason other than that it’s easier than thinking of something else to do, even though I can always just not do that. It’s fine to play video games. It’s fine to fart around online. And it’s fine to watch whatever particular stupid TV show you like. But it is deranged to give hours—or even minutes!—of your life to a show that you do not particularly like. It is deranged to give chunks of your life to the idle browsing of TV channels or streaming video service menus in search of the least-bad or most distractingly bad thing on which to dump a chunk of your time.

The point here is not that TV is uniquely bad—though it might be, given how much of it there is and how much of it evidently sucks. But no other entertainment medium—not even video games—encourages this kind of purely empty, slack-jawed passivity, building eventually to an incapacity to imagine what leisure time would be like without it. If you were to suggest to someone that it might be OK to sometimes just not be reading a novel, or that they can always just not idly stare at paintings during every free moment of their waking life, or that if there are no yoga poses they are particularly excited about at any given time then they always have the option of just doing something else instead of yoga, people will not look at you like you just said two plus two equals five and go, “And, what, like, stare at the wall instead?”

Here is an idea. The next time you have an idle moment, ask yourself, without pressing the guide button on your remote control or pulling up the Netflix or Hulu or Prime Video menu, “Is there anything actually good that I know I actively want to watch on TV right now?” If you cannot, unaided, think of something actually good, that you actively want to watch, within five seconds, I would like to suggest that you choose not watching TV. For at least an hour.

You can always choose that! You can always just not watch TV.

And then you can get bizarrely into shadow puppetry instead. Or some other damn thing! What am I, your guidance counselor?