From the Basement

April 20, 2010

Why do we watch television?

Now that I’m no longer bound by the chains of homework, I have time during the week to actually watch the one show I enjoy. Castle airs on Mondays on ABC at 9 p.m. sharp. I love the show – witty banter, engaging characters, and (usually) great story writing. It rarely disappoints.

This week was no different. But I realized that I found myself looking forward to this new episode days in advance. I have never been like that with a television show before.

Is it Castle? No. Pleasurable though the show may be, it’s not the show. Rather, it’s where I’m at in life right now. I’m usually up to my eyeballs in homework, lunch dates, meetings, and the pleasanter obligations of life (spending time with those I care about). Being at home, though, is a very isolated place to be. I occasionally talk on the phone with girlfriends and Skype with my boyfriend; I sometimes see my old girlfriends who are still around my hometown – but not much. Mostly, I’m by myself during the day. And so the books I read, the stories I write, and the television I watch become the relationships I’m most engaged in. And my guess is that there are plenty of people who are in the same boat – who may not be in my situation but who mark their lives by the passage of other people’s stories.

How does this happen? Are there characters we connect with? Or do we gravitate to the predictability of certain plots and devices? As the author Tom Clancy said, “What’s the difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” There’s a predictability to, say, a love plot.  For instance, the will-they-or-won’t-they set-up that has been driving the show Bones for so long. While the relationship between Bones and Booth has been painfully drawn out (I hear from whinging fans), I’m betting that the show will end in a satisfactory way. See, the writers have made an implicit promise to their audience: we will put you through hell for X amount of seasons, but you will ultimately be rewarded by having the couple come together.

(How TV writers fail to realize that audiences can handle the story post-getting together is beyond me. TV is sorely in need of a decent, mature adult love story that goes beyond the first “I love you.”)

We mark our lives with stories, but sometimes it seems uncertain where that boundary is – does fiction reflect life or vice versa? I once had a girlfriend who, in telling me that she was leaving school, said that she realized she’d learned everything she knew about relationships from television. I thought she was over-exaggerating at the time (still do), but the point is made. We are greatly, greatly influenced by the stories we absorb. We may begin to act them out in our own lives. Or perhaps we fall deeper and deeper into the show, into the fantasy.

I don’t know where or what the answer is. I don’t know why stories hold such a power over us. And to any of my worried friends who are reading this, trust me, I’m not deeply into the fantasy that is the show Castle (though the mystery writer in me would really, really like to land a gig like that). But I do enjoy it, and there’s something about having a story to come back to at the same time every week that is soothing. It’s a structure that’s predictable, entertaining, reassuring: at this time, you will sit down and encounter a new and intriguing story that these characters who you’ve come to know and love will be embarking on. Hang on for the ride.

Two hundred years ago, this form of entertainment came via the serial novels that were published in newspapers. Now classic writers like Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas amassed cult followings, a mass of readers who would pick up a paper every week to read what antics Pip or d’Artagnan were up to this time. Where reading was once a public activity (any period movie will have a scene where one character reads aloud to a group, I guarantee it), it is now solitary, individual, isolated, solo. Entertainment has evolved from the text to the screen, and so now we go in groups to the theater to watch the latest film, or we gather around the television set in the dorm to watch Grey’s Anatomy (to my great shame, I did that freshman year). Movies and television are the stories we experience with other people, which is perhaps part of their allure.

A history of Western storytelling may go something like this: oral tales evolved into texts which evolved into recorded entertainment, which is oral storytelling of a sort. The visual, scripted, lighting-enhanced sort.

I enjoy a good television show, and Lord knows my movie collection is constantly growing. I love stories, and a good story can impact me in a powerful way. I don’t know why, but it does. I just want to remember to stay grounded, to not become so absorbed in the relationships I am seeing, reading, or writing that I forget to nurture and nourish the ones in my life.

Ultimately, I want to write my own life story, and I don’t want it to read like a summary of other people’s lives. I’ve got my own to make. So I’d best keep making it.

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