A Small Screen Summer

POSTCARD FROM NEW YORK

It's a funny thing. In nine months of school I watched hardly any television. Sure, every now and then I found myself taking in an episode of Seinfeld. Once in a while I tuned in for a late-night fix of Politically Incorrect. And of course I was obligated to endure the annual ritual of watching the Knicks fold in the second round of the playoffs. But my relationship to television from September through May has, through three years of college, grown quite efficient: I've learned to use it only when it's the best or only means of being delivered some nugget of entertainment or acquiring a particular piece of information.

In November, for example, I watched attentively as the votes of Californians were tallied live on the screen and the fates of the medical marijuana and affirmative action initiatives became known. In March, I rooted like hell (and with Ivy League pride) as Princeton got edged out by Cal in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And in April, I paced and cursed as Fargo, the only decent film in a long time to have a shot at dominating Oscar night, was snubbed in nearly every category.

How did I ever live without Sportscenter?

But when I've found it possible to avoid TV, I've done just that. I've learned to focus on newspapers, magazines and the internet-far more effective sources of information than the tube on just about anything-and movies and books-the best of which are far more imaginative and entertaining than almost anything television has to offer.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are shows that do right by television, that challenge its "idiot box" reputation. No matter how popular it has become to blast TV as a vapid medium, it's impossible to ignore the basic integrity and ingenuity of shows like Homicide, NYPD Blue, Dennis Miller Live, Conan O'Brien, Law & Order, Seinfeld, The Simpsons... . The list goes on.

One thing that's interesting about the summer, though, is that the moment in May when I leave my final final exam, this list of 'shows worth watching' seems to grow substantially. Which is to say that between June and September all this talk of efficient viewing, of television avoidance, has been known to go right out the window. Because while I can take or leave even the best television has to offer during the school year, while even my favorite shows are sacrificed tote rigors of my academic and extracurricular schedule, during the summer even reruns seem to take on a level of importance that approaches necessity.

I couldn't even tell you who shot Mr. Burns, and yet all month long I've been doing my damnedest to watch every Simpsons episode I can find on the 50-some-odd channels the folks at the cable company pump into my house. What's more, lately I've been given to wondering how I was able to live so long without Sportscenter. Finally, and perhaps most embarrassingly, I seem to be becoming some kind of Jim Lehrer Newshour groupie.

My summer fixation on the small screen can be explained, up to a point, in terms of a kind of cultural deprivation that I feel during the other nine months of the year. Absorbed in my studies and my College Experience, it's easy to forget that there is a world beyond Mass. Ave. In the summer, then, I've become prone to responding by bingeing on everything from MTV's "Daria" to PBS's "The Open Mind."

The Monday night before last was a striking example of the reaches of my problem. I found myself caught in a terribly frustrating embarrassment of riches: At 9 p.m. I was forced to choose from among a hotly contested game pitting my Mets against the division-leading Braves (Sportschannel New York), Larry King's interview with Vice President Al Gore (CNN) and Johnnie Cochran's much-anticipated conversion with Dennis Rodman (Court TV).

I did what any self-respecting child of the remote-control generation would do-I proceeded to watch all three simultaneously. Remarkably, I didn't seem to miss much. Each time I tuned into Larry King, Gore was still plodding along, sifting through a cycle of pronouncements no sane person could possibly disagree with. ("What we're advocating for America is producing good results for our country.") On Court TV, Dennis Rodman was busy repeating himself and stammering as he explained to a national audience why he wants to be left alone by the media.

Only the baseball game offered the kind of drama, excitement and unpredictability that threaten to ruin my attempt to take in three different programming options at the same time. And, true to form it did-I was so busy watching Gore deflect King's inane questions about the race for 2000 that I missed a crucial home run that put the Mets up 3-2 to stay.

Still, I was able to go to sleep that night without feeling that I had shirked my duties as a diehard Mets fan. After all, I still had plenty of time to catch the game's highlights on Baseball Tonight.

Dan S. Aibel'98 writes a biweekly column for The Crimson. During the summer he is living at home in New York.