Someone living in Barack Obama’s America, circa 2013, says these words to you: “I’m so behind.” In previous epochs—say, the Age of Lewinsky, or of disco—this might mean any number of things. A person might have failed to collate the year’s receipts for his accountant. Another might not have completed the longitudinal analysis necessary for her dissertation. A third might not have cleaned out the attic.
No longer. In Barack Obama’s America, those words refer to only one thing: the inability to keep up-to-date with a serialized television program.
There’s all this talk about how ours is a golden age for television—and, obviously, it’s the case that never before has there been so much ambitious, well-wrought fare on offer. And the drive to produce addictively watchable TV has now extended itself beyond conventional networks to the Internet streamer Netflix, whose high-end serial House of Cards with Kevin Spacey has made a huge splash over the past few weeks.
House of Cards joins an enormous number of serialized multiseason shows currently, or recently, on the air: Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Justified, Mad Men, Once Upon a Time, Revenge, Revolution, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, The Good Wife, The Walking Dead, Treme, and True Blood. (There are more still, but they have no cultural cachet.) These all have earned passionate followings and critical adulation, and each show unfolds a highly complex plot over a long period of time.
It is almost impossible to dip a toe into their waters at midpoint, because the characters and their relationships are well established and the plotlines so gnarled with incident that there’s no way to get the gist unless you go to Wikipedia to help you along. True, a few of them try to wrap up a major subplot each season, but the overall plot remains unresolved—and the problem of trying to start in the middle remains.
But who has the time to keep up once they’re on? Say you have to go out the evening that one of these must-watch shows airs, and then have obligations the next, so that you’re only two days behind. You could get it in on the third—only, on the third night there’s the airing of another one of these must-watch programs.
The advice often proffered to those who are interested is that they should download an entire season—all 6 or 9 or 12 hours—and watch all the episodes at once. Good advice indeed . . . if you don’t have other things going on in your life, like religious services, or kids to shuttle about, or infirm parents to take care of, or community responsibilities.
Once the world’s most mindless pleasure, TV-watching has now become a vehicle for the kind of free-floating worry that creates anxiety dreams. Only in this case it’s not Oh no, the test is today and I haven’t studied! but, rather, I have 42 episodes of Breaking Bad on my DVR I haven’t watched yet! In some circles, the failure to keep up leads to intolerable pressure. On Monday morning, you are completely cut out of the conversation at school drop-off—or at morning spin class, or during the five minutes before the marketing meeting begins—if you can’t join in the general chorus of anguish regarding the unexpected death that occurred during the season finale of Downton Abbey. A guys’ night out is ruined when you have nothing to say about Walt’s latest infamy on Breaking Bad. If you are the more aggressive type, you will move to shut down the discussion to which you cannot be a party with the tried-and-true “No spoilers!” trope. You shout, “Hey, you guys, no spoilers, I didn’t get to watch it yet!” Contemporary manners require everyone around you instantly to cease talking, lest they ruin your Big Reveal. More often, though, you will suffer the revelation with that deprecating bit of pointless self-accusation: “I’m so behind.”
My solution to the problem is a simple one: I’ve given up. I don’t watch anything. Titus Moody, the starchy New Englander created by the long-forgotten comic genius Fred Allen, said that he opposed radio because “I don’t hold with furniture that talks.” As for me, I won’t be ruled by a giant mirror-like thing in my living room that seeks to commit me to cultural experiences which take longer to complete than reading all seven volumes of Proust. I have a busy work life and three kids and a marriage—and I can’t see spending more time with the vampires of True Blood than with my wife.
I miss the bad old days, when television writers thought so little of their work they would create three different flashback episodes in different years showing how a couple met and married. Sure, TV was worse, much worse; but it made no demands of you. I know art should provide a challenge to your day-to-day existence, but it shouldn’t swallow it whole.
So I have liberated myself. You are free to say what you like around me. I have no idea which guy died on Downton Abbey. I don’t know who had incestuous sex with whom on Boardwalk Empire. I don’t know if the zombies are winning or losing on The Walking Dead. I don’t know whom the mean-mommy shiksa married on Mad Men, or why a lawnmower attacked somebody in Don Draper’s office, or which French song the second wife sang at a party. You are hereby liberated as well: You will spoil nothing if you have lengthy conversations about all this in my presence. You may bore me to death, true, but that’s my problem, not yours.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD's movie critic.