Television on Fire

On Being Young and Middle-Aged Thanks to Television

I watched myself grow up on television. It had the tragic effect of turning me into a middle-aged young person.

I’m pretty sure it’s because I have mono. Spending all this time horizontal, I have to pare my life down to what I can accomplish before I collapse back into bed. If that doesn’t get one to think about all the unhappy accidents that come with a body, I don’t know what will. The most unhappy of the aforementioned accidents is, of course, mortality. But I’m not worried about death, necessarily. I’m worried about acting my age.

My parents raised me in rural Maine, and they wouldn’t let me watch television for a reason: it was the mid-’70s, and they thought that without the corruption of the city and mass culture, their children would be more imaginative, more centered, and more independent. There were a lot of people who thought like that in those days, from the first-wave feminists (fashion magazines breed low self-esteem) to Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”).

This deprivation, of course, made me more anxious to glue my eyeballs to the tube whenever possible. I remember illicit viewings of Nightrider and The Dukes of Hazard, sleepover cartoon freakouts, and even soap opera binges when my parents were away. I never learned, as some kids may have, that watching television can get boring. To me, that box of lights opened always and forever on to a forbidden country, its allure all the more powerful because it seemed to hold the secrets to the way that other people, normal people, lived.

It didn’t help that we lived in the middle of nowhere. To some extent, all of our Maine neighbors (that is, everyone in a 50-mile radius) suffered from the same postcolonial inferiority complex: things must be happening somewhere other than here. Unlike many kids of my generation, I missed out on the early days of MTV simply because our tiny town didn’t get a cable provider until the late ’80s. We had to content ourselves with the broadcast alternative, a mere hour every week on “Friday Night Videos”. Yet, at no time did I ever seriously doubt that television could show me who I was or how to be. If that channel I needed didn’t come on our TV, I was convinced that somebody somewhere was getting it, and so I would, too.

So I ended up in college in Chicago, about as far as my imagination could take me from rural Maine. The industrial Midwest is a hub for consumer culture, where kids know their way around a Target before they can even walk. Since the explorer Joliet discovered that a simple canal could connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, Chicago has functioned as the way station for every imaginable product. Products which, increasingly, are entertainment rather than utility-based.

It was the early ’90s, just as what MTV dubbed the “Alternative Nation” was coming of age. It may be true in some sense, therefore, that I watched myself grow up on television. Or that I came into some awareness of myself just as the rest of the culture was turning its eyes toward “Generation X” and naming a new wave of something or other, a kind of insurgency that miraculously corresponded with all the things I passionately believed in, like Steve Albini and Touch & Go Records and Pavement.

I remember that in the summer of 1994, Time magazine ran a cover depicting the pitchfork-wielding couple in the painting “American Gothic” as indie rockers, all pierced and dyed. Though at the time I mourned what I thought was the exposure of some pure underground, nothing could have prepared me for what’s happening now, which is to say, nothing. For the past ten years, everything interesting or new in popular culture seems to do with people my age. Or people who were 12 (like Britney Spears), which was also sort of about people my age. (See the 20-something affection for cartoons and the double irony of bubblegum stuff a la the Donnas).

Now my generation is slowly shuffling off television’s immortal coil. Though I graduated with the class of 90210, they’ve been off the air for years. That ’70s Show is about high school kids in a decade I don’t remember, and That ’80s Show sucked. Dawson’s Creek, a show obviously written by people my age to cope with overactive high-school nostalgia, has now degenerated into, well, something like the later years of 90210. Ditto for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which at its best moments, even introduced a level of post-graduation irony.

I’m left now with only the last season of Friends, which I never cared about much anyway, and the half-baked consolation of Gilmore Girls, which offers me exactly zero characters of my age or station in life (since I’m neither a high school girl nor a former teenage mom) but at least it’s witty, well-written, and set in New England. I only watch Smallville when I want to think about the demise of the family farm in a sort of Tommy Hilfiger ad kind of haze, and I have absolutely no interest in the Alias‘ of the world, which is obviously about me. Neither is 24, even if it does star a former brat-pack bad boy. I mean, what is it about, hostages or something? Bo-ring!

So what’s a girl to do? I can tell you that I’m getting very little consolation out of my copy of Tristram Shandy, no matter what the canon says.

If it didn’t seem to have broader consequences, I’d be more than willing to put this problem off to my depravity and/or deprivation. I need only cite the Mobius-strip-like inversion of the public and private that reality shows like Survivor and The Osbournes have introduced into the cultural sphere. I don’t think I’m the only one who has a hard time feeling an inner sense of identity and purpose. T

ake Michael Skupin, a member of the second season of Survivor, the one set in the Australian Outback. Those who are not television junkies may not remember that Skupin was the contestant who fainted into the fire, resulting in third-degree burns and a helicopter evacuation. The bloody, flayed spectacle aired on prime time (allegedly edited for gore), scoring Survivor its highest-rated episode since the series’ post-Superbowl premiere the year before.

A couple of things are of interest here, not the least of which is the ethics of the camera person who caught Skupin’s fall on film without moving to pull him out of the fire (he fell face down). Skupin, who was already an evangelical Christian when he showed up in the Outback, apparently experienced a spiritual rebirth due to his accident. He has claimed on The 700 Club that his faith in God (and not the emergency burn unit in Sydney) healed his hands. Most interestingly, however, he kept his accident a secret from his family, preferring to allow them to find out with the nation when Episode #6 aired.

“I wanted my family to experience the whole spiritual journey in the Outback week by week,” he said on The 700 Club. “I wanted them to see the changes that were taking place in me before the traumatic burn scene. I wanted them to feel in their hearts what I was feeling.”

He wanted them to feel like his accident was real, so he let them see it on television. Never mind their concern, their horror. Never mind whatever care and real presence his own living body and voice could have brought them if he’d bothered to prepare them for what they’d see on screen. I know, I know that ever since those two cranks Horkheimer and Adorno brought the Frankfort School over from Germany, people have been complaining about television messing with our sense of what’s real. But that’s just freaking sick. Given this kind of attitude and the fact that we’re willing to give the Rolling Stones credit just for existing it’s no wonder I’m confused about who will provide a televised guidebook to the wilds of my 30s and beyond.

Or maybe it’s just as simple as how a friend of mine expressed his feelings about the zeitgeist shipwreck that is our era: “It frightens me,” he said, “that none of the songs on the radio sound good to me anymore.”