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must-see, but not on tv
should tv lovers switch off the set?
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
8.4.10
television

Around this time last year, I mused about watching TV not on TV, all the ways we can see television shows via Hulu and Netflix-streaming and DVD. This year, I'm taking it to the next level.

TV off the TV set isn't just an alternative to following the old one-episode-a-week-during-the-season pattern.

It's better.

We're overwhelmed with entertainment options, aren't we? Books and movies, TV and music, in the house and in the theatre and on our iPad/phone/Wii/whatever. While I don't automatically confuse "good" with "popular", I've long been an advocate of watching or reading things around the same time other people are watching or reading them, because the discussion of pop culture is often just as interesting and exciting as consuming the pop culture itself.

Example? Last week, I spent two hours watching Inception. In the time since, I must have spent at least 10 hours discussing Inception. Can't have the second without the first but I wouldn't have enjoyed the first as much without the second.

But now, while I still prefer that model for books and movies, for television, I'm starting to change my mind.

Maybe I've just been burned by too much reality TV lately, too many episodes after which I was annoyed or dissatisfied or both, feeling like I'd wasted my time. I loyally watched "Top Chef" and "So You Think You Can Dance" every week, and every week, I thought, "I almost wish I hadn't bothered watching that." Or maybe, in a way, this is all about "Friday Night Lights."

"Friday Night Lights" is one of the best shows on television, if not the best hands-down. But because of its odd one-of-a-kind broadcast model, it was shown on DirecTV and then, after a gap of several months, on NBC. Even though it was regularly mentioned in entertainment magazines and online articles during its DirecTV run, I skipped right over every mention, not wanting to be spoiled so far ahead of time.

So when I watch those episodes now, with absolutely no information about what characters are staying or going, how long the storylines might last, or what issues Coach (mmm, Coach) and Mrs. Coach ("Hey, y'all!") are going to address, I'm seeing them completely fresh. Everything that happens is unanticipated. I haven't been thinking about it enough to anticipate it.

And I like that.

As a TV fan, I tend to find out whatever I can about the TV shows I like, short of spoilers. When new contestants are announced for shows like "Project Runway" or "The Amazing Race", I read about them; when I was watching "Lost" during its first season, I joined in the online speculation about Dharma sharks and whatnot, interpreting and speculating and conversing and wondering.

And I'm starting to think that I don't want to do that anymore, because it compromises the TV experience.

Lately, I've watched full seasons of some TV shows in rapid succession -- a "Bones" marathon here, a "West Wing" two-episodes-a-day binge there. All of "Jericho" in two months. I just blazed through Season 4 of "The Wire" and have started back at the beginning with Season 1.

What I'm also noticing when watching my television in mini-marathons on disc or streaming video is that I enjoy seeing only the episode itself. Let me explain. The DVD format does away with the otherwise-necessary evil of the previews and "the previouslies." On a complicated show like, let's say, "Friday Night Lights", there are two ways you can actually be spoiled for a show while watching it: one, if something is mentioned during the "previously on" segment at the top of the show, you know it'll be important in the next hour (oh, Matt's absent dad is mentioned? look, it's the return of Matt's dad!); and two, in the "next week on" segment at the end of the ep, the promo monkeys will often pull an important moment from next week's show that doesn't happen until three-quarters of the way through that episode, so you spend that 45-minute stretch episode anticipating it.

Maybe the experience of being a TV fan, in some ways, ruins TV. Television can be amazing and wonderful. As a writer, being able to follow what happens to a set of characters over the course of hours and days and weeks and years means you can do so much more with television than you can with movies. (Books, let's set aside. You can do absolutely anything with books.) Yes, there is plenty of mindless programming on television. The medium doesn't have inherent virtue. But there is such potential in the form, and the best way to realize that potential may very well to watch the characters and plots develop rapidly, instead of letting the world get in the way in between, tempting you to fill in the gaps with online speculation or casting news or other things that you want to increase your enjoyment that can end up decreasing it.

Yes, there are occasional moments when I wish someone else were watching these shows along with me, so I could call a friend and shout "OMG they killed Mark Harmon!" or squee about Luke and Lorelai's first kiss, but on balance, I'm thinking I'm better off this way. So I'm going to give it a shot for a while.

And maybe after I'm done watching all of "True Blood" I'll want to discuss it with you. Maybe I'll want to find out the differences between the books and the show, or pore over the intricacies of how Alan Ball has adapted traditional vampire lore, but for now, no. For now, I'll just slip the next disc into the player, and keep my thoughts about Bill and Sookie to myself.


ABOUT JAEL MCHENRY

Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry

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