I was in Boston at the time, lonely and angry, in a graduate school program that was both underwhelming and expensive. I’d gone there with enormous, gauzy hopes and discovered an indifferent city with white iPhone earbuds dangling from every person’s head.
I had few friends, an allergic reaction (crying, wheezing, spiritual despair) to graduate student parties, and no affection for Beantown. Not the Charles, not the tired bike paths, not greasy Harvard Square, not the subway cars filled with Red Sox jersey-wearing fans on game nights.
What good there was in the city, what history and intellect, what music and strangeness, I couldn’t let in. I know it existed. I saw other people living it. But it was separate from me, and I could not find any way to belong.
One of my housemates, though, had a fancy computer with a very fast Internet connection -- and a Netflix account.
I blasted through the early seasons of "House," watched all of "Freaks and Geeks," dipped in to old episodes of "Happy Days." Television became my comfort and companion, a private relationship with a fictive world that felt as piercing and important as the real one.
No, it was richer, more powerful, than my physical life in Boston. I cried watching those shows. I dreamed about the characters. I flinched at fights and cringed at humiliations. I wrote one of two fan notes I’ve ever written in my life, this one to Martin Starr,
My television watching was emotional and it was analgesic. TV can make you feel things when you otherwise can’t; TV can numb you to the feelings that are happening without it.
I have seen this kind of relationship to TV before. My grandmother watched it every night in bed after my grandfather died. She preferred PBS specials and old movies, but in the last year of her life, she got hooked on incendiary cable news. It makes sense now that I remember her sudden angers and injustices. She raged that final year, and she was scared.
And I remember visiting a high school friend at her home. Her mother, an intellectual woman, round in body and face, with Benjamin Franklin glasses and gray hair tied back in a low ponytail, had built a veritable nest six or so feet from a large television.
The chair seat had formed perfect hollows where she sat. One armrest held an ashtray and the other a glass of water. (When I told my husband of this image burned into my brain, he immediately thought of the chair that Pink sat in in one of the angriest scenes in Pink Floyd’s "The Wall.") I thumbed through her copy of "TV Guide." She’d highlighted a month’s worth of programs to view.
She turned on the television as we left the house, and I felt her hunger for the screen. I recognized it. I think she might have been an angry person, too.
Most media, I think, have the potential to enrich our fantasy lives while removing us from the direct experience of our bodies and minds. Television is so immediate and personal, and above all, so easy to consume, that it must be more powerful than all the novels and crossword puzzles combined, at least to those of us susceptible to its charms.
I cannot, however, claim that TV is evil or corrupting. I want to; I think I would be a more productive person if I believed that; but I don’t. TV’s hold on my imagination, and my yearning for the displacement of pain that it provides, disturb me, but they instruct me, too. My relationship to television, that blue-glowing beast, is one of the clearest bellwethers I have for how well or poorly I am living my life.
When I look back at Boston, I can see when the tumblers of the lock on health and happiness began to shift. Toward the end of that dreadful year, I stumbled onto a Canadian series called "Slings & Arrows" that ran for three seasons in the mid-2000s. It follows, as the title suggests, the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" befalling the New Burbage Festival, loosely based on the renowned Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.
The show starts with the black-humored death of the festival’s artistic director, Oliver Welles, and his immediate return as a ghost that only Geoffrey Tennant, Oliver’s former protege and now the possibly mad interim director of the festival, can see. In the midst of this Geoffrey directs "Hamlet," with unsolicited, and often frustrating, advice from the ghost of Welles.
Oh, I loved this show, from the opening shot of a clogged toilet to the rollicking theme song that exhorted Hamlet to "Cheer up, you melancholy Dane!" to the shabby, fantastical enactment of the opening storm of "The Tempest." I still feel magical, invited to a party I actually want to attend, when I catch an episode. Maybe I’m really Canadian.
But here’s the blessed rub. After I left the city for Western Massachusetts, I bought the DVDs and sent them to my dad. He went crazy. After each new episode, he’d call me and we’d talk it through scene by scene, crowing over our favorite parts, reciting lines and analyzing characters.
I could tell my husband also loved the show, though he would never admit it to me. I think he was afraid of getting attached to the characters, knowing the show had only a three-year run. He needs seven seasons to really wring the emotion, love and joy out of a series.
The conversations I had with my dad were delicious. They happened in real time, in real space. They were made of our breath, from our own minds.
TV gave us substance. We turned it into love. At last, loneliness was not more powerful than that.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer.