I came late to television watching as a pastime. Very, very late.
In fact, I didn’t own a working television set until my mid 20s, and I really didn’t watch that television set with any serious intent for at least three years after its— and my husband’s— arrival in my life.
Before you get weirded out by my limited television upbringing, keep in mind the following facts that are germane to this discussion: I grew up in the 80s and 90s, a time when TV provided such scintillating offerings as Full House and Charles In Charge. I was raised during the end of the era where television went off the air after a certain hour and every TV set sported a spiffy pair of rabbit ears.
Frankly, TV is not that interesting when there are only four channels available and three of them have sitcoms where the lead actor is wearing suspenders and the fourth has the Murfnerp-Larrer Newsing Hour for two hours each evening.
Despite these soft-serve shows, my mother put strict parameters around my television viewing so that I would not mindlessly watch whatever was on the screen. (Also, there were limits to my mother’s patience with bad television. She exercised veto power gently though.)
The best answer I can provide about my limited television watching as a child is that I was so busy doing the things that I wanted to do and I never felt as though I was missing out on much of anything.
Here’s the short version of my childhood:
I had six hours of dance classes a week and practiced at home every day.
I had piano lessons, which meant I had to budget time for practicing piano.
I read a great deal and I made things and I listened to a lot of music and went to the library every week.
At seven, I started studying writing, first in short stabs, then in longer stretches. (My mother enrolled me in my first writing workshop when I was fourteen.)
It may not have been your ideal childhood, but some of my best memories rise like steam from a coffee cup when I think about sitting in my room on the second floor of my mother’s house with a notebook on the vintage lap table my grandmother bought me from the thrift store, listening to one of my mother’s first-pressing Beatles records on the bed my mother built in a woodshop class.
Light streamed through the trees in golden ribbons that wrapped my windows in a gentle glow, and all was fine in the world as far as I knew it.
Not everything was perfect about this arrangement.
Minimum TV watching means that I lost the thread of references passed in childhood conversation.
Some shows I was not allowed to watch out of hand— The Dukes of Hazzard, for instance, was a show my mother thought would make me addlepated.
(Given how absorptive my brain is for visual goofiness, she was probably right.)
Those few times I insisted on watching the worst television had to offer, my mother sat there saying, “And now this character is going to say this. Then that character is going to do that.”
I was baffled. “How do you know?”
“I just do.”
And wouldn’t you know it, she was right! Every single time!
I thought my mother was magical, you all, just magical. How in the world could she predict the storyline or the punchline to almost everything we watched together? I was in awe.
Still, I didn’t watch much television. Even when I moved out of the house, I didn’t seek it out, really, because what I needed most when I lived on my own was a working toaster. And I had one of those. So, I was pretty well set.
In adulthood though, my situation changed.
I found myself having to do menial tasks for which television is a perfect partner. The problem was— I didn’t know how to watch the damn thing. Or what to watch.
The Husband tried; he really did try. His favorite program is The Andy Griffith Show, so I teethed on that at first but I really wasn’t getting it. Our friend Phillip had to step in when I didn’t understand what else there was to watch; he gently took my hand, and put a bunch of TV shows on DVD in my upturned fingers.
“Start with Babylon 5,” he said. “It’s one of the first television shows to be designed with a long-arc narrative form, like a novel. The clothes are silly, but the plot is not.”
Oh! I thought. It’s a show that’s like a book! I can watch that.
And I did watch it— from start to finish. The Husband watched also. Babylon 5 isn’t a show that The Husband or I would have picked out of a lineup, but it turned out to be so good, I couldn’t stop consuming episode after episode, quickly.
(Now, keep in mind the costume designer was obviously working with a limited budget for the first few seasons, which means it looks like she sourced all of her character garments from a fire sale at World Market. Lots and LOTS of kente cloth pillbox hats turn up early on. I don’t mean to badger on about it, but the clothes are pretty silly at first.)
Three weeks later, I called up Phillip.
“Okay. I watched Babylon 5. What’s next?”
You watched the whole thing? said Phillip.
“All the miniseries and the spin-off show?”
“Everything but the spin-off show. I tried. I didn’t like it. But I watched the extras. Did you know they put all sorts of things on the extras?”
“Yes,” said Phillip. “I did.” ( Phillip is a journalist and film critic of many years standing. His education on these subjects is enormous. But, thankfully, so is his patience for the TV and movie unintiated like myself.)
“Let me think,” Phillip said. The line went quiet for a moment while he ransacked his brain sorting out what I should watch next. I heard a pencil scribbling on paper. Was he working out equations involving bluebirds and television?
He came back on the line. “There’s a new show out. To be honest, it’s not new, but it’s a reinvention of an older show. It’s called Battlestar Galactica.”
I wrinkled my nose and looked at the phone. “Are you sure?”
“It just started this year. It’s like Babylon 5 in that it works with a long-arc narrative structure. It will help you tighten up your plots as a writer, and that’s something you’ve been worrying about lately. Look. I’ll mail you my copy of the first season, which just came out on DVD.”
I hesitated. “Okay?”
“Check your mailbox in a few days. I’ll get it in the mail today.”
Since that conversation, I have seen an immense amount of television.
I’ve watched everything from Deadwood to all of the PBS “House” series to last fall’s opening line-up. I have seen television shows from many countries all over the world (when I get ahold of them, anyway). I have even seen the truthitudiness of reality television many times. Fascinating!
Once Phillip wedged open the door and helped me walk through it, I learned to adore television. The miracle of video stores, the public library, and later, Netflix made my first crude searches for TV shows easier, then revealed their sophisticated offerings once I knew what to consider.
At the same time, Phillip took me— patiently, so patiently— through each and every trope and trick in the television medium.
Because of all this coaching and watching and learning, today I watch television with a discerning eye.
Phillip was right— if you want to understand how plot structure works, you need to watch TV.
And if you want to know how to structure dialogue, go no further than the big, flickering box with the moving pictures.
These days, before the opening scene of a new show finishes playing out, I know exactly what the writers were trying to do and (more or less) how they plan to execute their ideas.
It’s like knowing a series of intricate magic tricks, a slight of hand, a bit of verbal patter to distract you so that you will gape in disbelief when the doves emerge from the magician’s sleeve.
All basic plots since the beginning of time follow a pattern, and that pattern shows up on television every single day. You merely have to know what you’re looking for when you’ve got the thing on.
Keeping a notebook handy helps— especially if, like me, your short-term memory is squoodgy like fudge left out in the sun too long.
Because of Phillip, I love television. And movies. What an amazing gift Phillip has given me. It’s a whole world in and of itself.
He taught me something I could not figure out on my own.
He talked me through learning to watch TV so quietly that I didn’t get spooked.
(Please forgive this almost hyperbolic sounding statement, but understand that if you never watched TV, TV watching is a really weird experience.)
To this day, my friend Phillip is amazed that I didn’t watch television until I turned 28.
“But you taught me how to watch television,” I say, when the subject comes up. “And now I know how plots work. Thank you so much for opening up that world for me.”
I can hear Phillip smiling on the other end of the line. Phillip is a writer. A real writer. His laugh is a fist fight between an accordion and a stack of sandpaper, and when he laughs, I laugh, and that is a wonderful thing.
A pencil scribbles on a notebook pad. He’ll have a suggestion for me soon, I just know it. I can’t wait.
“Okay, so have you seen Walking Dead yet?”
“No,” I say. “But I’m listening. Tell me all about it.”
Hey! Do you want to hear Phillip reading one of my essays in the voice of Christopher Walken? It’s really flapping great! The audiobook version of my essay is called “Walken Bare-Legged in a Dry-Land.”