This morning on our way into work, my husband was telling me about the Modern Family episode I missed last night, the one where Jay introduces his Colombian-born wife, Gloria, to a well-known friend who says, “Hello, I’m Billy Dee Williams,” and she replies, “Hello, I’m Gloria de wife.”
Are you laughing? Because I did, loudly, which is what you do if you know Jay, old long-suffering Jay, and Gloria, his adorably clueless wife, and you’ve known them through years of her brazen mispronunciations and his sighing acquiescence. To those of you who’ve never seen Modern Family, all three of you, you’re thinking, ‘Is this even funny?’ and no—to you it undoubtedly isn’t. You have to know them.
And we do know them, my husband and daughter and me. They’re our TV friends.
In our pre-kid years my husband and I had a flourishing community of TV friends: Murphy Brown and Niles Crane and George Costanza, like everyone, but also Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, Chris in the Morning, President Jed Bartlet. (No, we weren’t watching TV all the time; yes, we had plenty of real friends, too. Like most people, we watched somewhere between the amount of TV we would own to and the amount we wanted to watch.) We cleared our calendars for Twin Peaks; we “discovered” underheralded gems like Picket Fences and Sports Night.
And once we had our daughter, we gave it up.
Oh, we took in measured doses of Arthur the savvy aardvark, and weird little non-specifically-gendered Caillou, and that gay Teletubby and his crew. (We drew the line at Barney, whose nauseating earnestness seemed likeliest to teach her to play with pedophiles.) I’m surely the one soul in America who’s never seen full footage of 9/11, scenes I didn’t want to plant in my toddler’s head. After she’d go down for the night we might watch some Law and Order franchise, but we were too weary and distracted to nurture our old TV friendships.
So when a new home necessitated we buy cable to get reception, we made the decision to opt out of TV altogether. Too spendy. Weren’t really watching anyway. We’d have a smarter kid! Studies continued to find TV consumption correlating to diminished happiness springing from lower life satisfaction and lesser self-control—so we’d be more satisfied! Have more control! We were fine, and stayed fine for years.
Why we ultimately caved, I can’t precisely recall. Probably we finally just had it with being the idiots at the party, as knowing references to those krazy Bluths and Dunder Mifflin and Christaphuh Moltisanti flew over our heads in social conversation while we stood there, stupid. Our daughter finally blurted that she couldn’t stand one more day of not knowing who iCarly was. Guiltily, we threw over frugality and high ideals for a 36-incher.
So imagine our shock when our new TV instantly amplified our happiness and life satisfaction—exponentially. During our hiatus TV had transformed itself, soaring from famously mediocre to what Vanity Fair recently extolled as a “vast tasteland.” Suddenly TV was really, really good. Through the magic of technology and Netflix it had also become really, really available—any screen, anytime—which meant no one ever had to ditch real friends for TV friends anymore, ever.
It even seemed that those TV characters actually were our friends, in that they drew us into real relationships. Water-cooler recaps of the exploits of Jack Bauer and Walter White and best lines from Jack Donaghy and Leslie Knope have reliably provided the most boisterous and democratic chatter in the lunchroom. Being in media, a lot of us followed the Newsroom exploits of Will McAvoy and MacKenzie McHale with delectable critical vivisection.
In a British study three years ago, researchers found that despite the emergent flexibility allowing us to watch our favorites whenever, almost 85 percent of DVR owners nonetheless opted to watch at the time they were broadcast. Television is a social medium, they concluded. We want to talk about it.
We want, as I discovered with my husband this morning, to share it. It’s how we reinforce our common values. Glee launched right around the time my family emerged from our TV coma; the question became whether we would allow our tweener kid to partake of this show almost entirely composed of kids having sex and adults insulting them.
Now of course we’ve learned to watch Glee as a family whenever we can, for the chewy discussions it provokes around some of the toughest topics for parents to bring up. Stories do that for us. As for me and my husband, we relish the bond that springs from sharing like appraisals of characters: Whenever we’re both drawn in by charismatic sociopath Nucky Thompson, or revived by the steely hopefulness of Downton housemaid Anna, or painfully sympathetic to everyone’s favorite CIA wackjob, Carrie Mathison. Our agreement that a certain vapid midcentury ad man is infinitely more depressing than a justice-bent serial killer isn’t simply uniting—it feels almost edifying.
It’s not that TV gives our lives meaning, it’s that TV puts flesh on our values so as to make us aware of life’s meaning. If my regular workaday life provides few moments illuminating the poignant richness of good people doing their best—I have Downton Abbey.
Even—thank you, Hulu—now that it’s over for the season.
Published: March 2013