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My annual winter slump is about to arrive. It is timed perfectly to correlate with the due date of my first thesis chapter, the day my heater quits and the day that Harvard turns a pathetic color gray for six weeks with no snow. So instead of doing my school work, I will close my blinds and dedicate my precious evening hours to Must-See TV, the opium of the masses. In the coming weeks, 80 percent of the people I see each day will be prettier, happier and more successful than I am. None of this will warp my self-perceptions in the slightest.
Instead of frigid gray Boston, I will see a Friendly Manhattan followed by a gay Manhattan, a sunny Miami and a drama-packed Chicago. The logical questions won’t be asked: Isn’t New York City a slushy mush of snow and dog poop in the winter? Don’t people blow away in Chicago on a regular basis? No, no. TV world is Happy World, and for three hours every Thursday night, I’m a part of it.
Apparently I am not alone. The average American watches 3.77 hours of a television a day. This adds up to 52 days of non-stop TV watching a year, and nearly nine straight years of watching by age 65. If you don’t know what’s going on with your roommates, look no further: two-thirds of Americans report regularly watching television while eating dinner, with the average household featuring one blaring television 7.2 hours each day. Note that “average” means there are many people who watch significantly more than the average.
Before television, people used to leave their couches and compare themselves with their neighbors. Now we stay put for an action-packed 22 minutes that is much more appealing than any roommate. The obvious is never asked: Why do I suddenly want Sarah Jessica Parker’s shoe collection? Why is Jennifer Aniston’s perfect golden hair tint my new goal in life? Why is my beautiful décor in Leverett Towers suddenly insufficient? This is reprogramming, not entertainment programming. And yet we keep watching.
Or at least I used to. Then I switched roommates, and now I don’t have a television anymore. And suddenly, my life is looking pretty good. With only those around me to compare against—Bio Boy next door with no friends and a non-viable biology thesis; Makeup Girl, who appears to spend her life in a cosmetics commercial and still looks like she just came through a wind tunnel—I’m doing pretty well on all fronts. Not just well, awesome. I have discovered the new Prozac: Stop watching television.
Once separated from the fray for more than two weeks, the spectacle becomes nauseating. The couples sacrificing their relationships for momentary fame on reality television and the game show hosts in minimal outfits are just embarrassing themselves. Those people of questionable intelligence who trek down 30 red carpets a year become laughable. Did anyone catch this summer’s MTV Music Video Awards? Who are these people? Who ever thought that this is okay?
Read a book or two on media theory and it gets worse. “Television is set up with no motive more sinister than to appeal to the largest possible audience—pretty people tend to be more appealing to look at than non-pretty people,” says David Foster Wallace, in a book entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (we know: watch television). This explains the “Extra” commentator with the six-pack abs who taunts my body image for 44 minutes at a shot. We can try to remind ourselves that it’s all a sham, that those beautiful smiling faces drop into frowns the minute the camera is off, heading to couples’ therapy to avoid alimony payments. Meanwhile, I’m back at the gym trying to develop the six-pack that will never be.
A nonprofit watchdog group, TV-Free America, finds television overload to be problematic, though admittedly they are more concerned with inappropriate child exposure than my personal feelings about my abs. The group has started a national TV-Turnoff Week each April, an effort supported by everyone from the National Academy of Pediatricians to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. (The people who spend the most time watching flashing bare mid-driffs are also the heaviest.) This year over 6.4 million Americans avoided the Box of Existence for seven whole days. I liked a particular phrase on their website: “Turn off TV and turn on Life.” Even when life consists of a paper due in 14 hours, a thesis due in 14 weeks and a crazy roommate, television is not the perfect antidote. It will suck you in and spit you out with a whole new value system, complete with an unnatural desire for a new hair color.
Alas, if you grew up on “Square One” and “3-2-1 Contact” (or “90210” and “21 Jump Street”) and still need your television fix, there is still one safe mainstay on television, guaranteed not to make you wish for a better anything: “The Sopranos.” I ended a five-week television drought to watch my first episode at a study break. The average Soprano is 30 percent overweight, heavily therapized and under FBI surveillance, with friends who die unexpectedly on a regular basis. I came out feeling great about myself—who needs more drama in Cambridge? Ah, if only my heater worked.
Arianne Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.
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