Sandlund: Celestial Television

On learning how to embrace television—and laziness — with family.

by William Sandlund | 2/16/17 12:25am

My grandfather, known in our family as Pop-pop, left today after a two-week visit. Every year, he makes a pilgrimage to this part of the family in California, where he soaks in rays of sun that leave his pale skin riddled with basal cell carcinomas. Around twice a year he has these blemishes wiped off his body with blasts of liquid nitrogen. What is left are white scars the color of the moon.

I love Pop-pop dearly. In spite of my family’s frequent moves, he has been a constant presence in my life. With him, I caught my first fish on a lake in New Jersey. And when his wife, my grandma, died nine years ago, he drove her old car across the country to pick me up in California before driving to Alaska to drop it off with my uncle. We spent a lot of time together that summer talking, listening to audio books and betting small change on random things like the temperature of the town we would spend the night in.

Five years after this journey, our family had a reunion that also served as Pop-pop’s 80th birthday celebration. When I was asked to say a few words, I promptly burst into tears, sobbing my way through a muddled impromptu speech as Pop-pop quietly sat next to me. Part of why I started to cry was a sheer inability to articulate my love. I was also crying because of how much he had changed over the course of my life. Seeing people you love grow old is difficult. Harder than seeing their bodies age is witnessing the gradual fading of that previously indomitable will to survive. Perhaps my tears were an attempt to remind Pop-pop of what he had to live for as much as they were triggered by beloved memories.

Of course, my grandfather has not checked out of life completely. It has just become gradually less interesting for him, and with good reason. When you consider the coupling of physical aging with the loss of peers all around you, it is easy to understand how getting old erodes your drive to survive. It occurs in different ways in different people, but certain interests are gradually shaved away until all you are left with is family and a close group of friends. In fact, for most people these connections are what ultimately keep us going, regardless of age. Getting old just makes it painfully clear. All of our ambitions, successes and failures would mean nothing without people we love acting as reference points throughout our lives. That is a scary thing to think about.

Now, I mainly watch television with Pop-pop. Together we plumbed the depths of cable in the 21st century, where hundreds of stories are unfolding simultaneously on the screen, just waiting to be watched. My responsibility was often to act as a sort of spirit guide on these journeys; when I left Pop-pop unattended he often got disoriented in this 800-channel world. Once, when left alone, he got hooked on Investigation Discovery, a channel with shows that dramatize murder cases and interview traumatized bystanders.

I tried as much as possible to direct him to the non-cable world of streaming television, where we could experience American entertainment without the incessant humdrum of commercials that, strangely enough, often targeted Pop-pop’s age demographic. Tom Selleck, the police chief in “Blue Bloods,” one of his go-to series, stars in an ad promoting American Advisors Group’s reverse mortgage that often runs during episodes.

So we steered toward streaming TV. We plowed through “The Night Manager,” “The Crown,” started “Mad Men” and, of course, had a healthy dose of “Midsomer Murders.” Every time we sat down for one of these sessions I felt a tug of war between guilts. On one side, I felt terrible for watching so much TV, and on the other, I felt terrible leaving Pop-pop alone. At first, it was depressing to see the man who once drove me to Alaska content to be a couch potato. But I realized this emotion came from a bias against TV that also contributed to my self-disgust for watching so much of it.

At the heart of this disgust is a cultural distaste for more than the state of idleness. It is reasonable to dislike this state of being; it breeds a sense of purposelessness we are desperate to avoid. What is strange is how we have an unspoken hierarchy of indolence, with the image of mindless TV-watching being amongst the most repulsive. I started to wonder: if Pop-pop and I read instead of watching TV, would it be objectively better for us? I concluded that it would depend on the book — and on the TV show. It seems possible that our biases against TV is part of a wider historical trend to deem certain forms of entertainment as damaging and others as productive. For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries, reading fiction, especially if you were a woman, was considered a dangerous waste of time. Of course, novels do not have Tom Selleck advertisements selling you a reverse mortgage, but neither does Netflix.

In fact, even as I watched the trite “Midsomer Murders” episode “Written in Blood,” I had to admire the slow and deliberate pacing building up to a climax rife with now-overused allusions to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” It shared the pace of one of the original British detective successes, “Inspector Morse.” When you sit down to such shows, there is that same feeling of comfort you get from settling into a good novel.

Besides, when Pop-pop and I laughed at the obviously breathing corpses of “Midsomer Murders” or the ridiculous acting, I couldn’t help but feel that the show was a tonic of some sort. Laughter requires some mental acrobatics — humor being that ability to step outside of a situation and laugh at how silly it is. And we were not just chuckling at the show, we were laughing at ourselves for watching it. That kind of humorous self-awareness is a higher order of laughter than guffawing at a prescribed joke. TV had elevated us, and restored my faith in the absurdity of life. So don’t feel shy, put your feet up and tune in to some WWE.