How TV Shows Defines Us

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yesterday The Hollywood Reporter came out with Hollywood’s 100 Favorite TV Shows where they conducted a poll asking people to vote for their single all-time favorite TV show. My immediate answer was Breaking Bad, which came in at #2. I was familiar with most of these shows, and had faithfully followed many of them, but only six were ones I wished I owned as complete series on Blu-ray (and would want to watch again). The other five were The Twilight Zone (#17), Friday Night Lights (#38), Downton Abbey (#44), Freaks and Geeks (#50), Star Trek: The Next Generation (#55) and Battlestar Galactica (#95).

Balllestar Gallactica Last Supper

Now that’s an odd combination. But I have to assume it’s a kind of fingerprint, one that identifies my personality. Ten or twenty years ago I probably would have listed several sitcoms among my favorites. I hardly ever watch sitcoms anymore. Have I lost my sense of humor? This summer my favorite shows were Humans and Mr. Robot, both of which I bought. I’ve already seen Humans twice, and I’m watching Mr. Robot again with a second set of friends. Shows not on the Hollywood Reporter list that I’d add to my collection would be Northern Exposure, Shameless, Big Love and The Outer Limits. My all-time favorite television show has been NOVA – but they don’t seem to want nonfiction.

The common theme of my TV shows is science fiction, yet my most love series is about a meth maker. In terms of self-reflection I’d have to say I grew up like the geeks in Freaks and Geeks. That’s probably my 2nd all-time favorite, and I’d say my third is Friday Night Lights or Big Love, which is weird because I hate football and I’m not religious. And why would anyone identify with the people in Shameless?

For most television, and I’ve been a very avid watcher since 1955, I can only watch a series once. Of the shows I’ve listed here, I’ve already watched twice, or plan to. I’m not sure I can watch Star Trek: The Next Generation again, but I keep hoping I can. I have such fond memories of that show, but whenever I try, I discover it’s still too soon. I’m already ready to watch Breaking Bad and Freaks and Geeks for a third time through. However, since I know my tastes have already changed several times over my lifetime, I wonder if I will still love any of these shows in my seventies or eighties?

My guess is we all respond to a certain kind of storytelling, and the shows we love resonate with that inner narrative we use to see the world. By that measure, my preferred shows have one consistent trait, they are all about oddballs and oddities. I’ve never been a team player, and I’m fascinated by people living on the edge of normal. My guess the person I become in my eighties will love recent shows, and he will have forgotten all these older ones. I listed The Twilight Zone and The Other Limits because they are anthologies that still work for me, but only barely.

One reason I loved Mr. Robot this summer was because it was complicated and contemporary. If you graph shows by complexity, you’d see that shows of the past were simple, and we’re moving towards ever increasing sophistication in storytelling. If my cognitive functions hold up as I age, I think I’ll always prefer richer storytelling. And I worry about my friends who have become so nostalgic for simpler storytelling.

I used to love Gilligan’s Island in the sixties but now when I catch it flipping through the channels I wonder if I was brain damaged as a kid. In fact, nostalgia drives me to try to watch many of my favorite shows from the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s always a painful experience I can’t endure for more than a few minutes. How come I changed?

We all grew up with television, and I think our favorite television shows are touchstones for some of our best memories. I often think of people I used to know by the shows I watched with them. When I think of my mother and father, I remember the shows they loved, and figured those shows are a way to understand who they were. When I talk with my sister, we mainly discuss the television we’re watching. When I meet new people, I often relate best to those people who talk about shows I like too. I’m convinced that television shows are much better indicators of personality traits than astrological signs. I know that’s not scientific, but doesn’t it just feel right?

JWH

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