by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 28, 2018
Until the success of the VCR in the second half of the 1970s fans of television shows couldn’t just watch their favorite episodes whenever they wanted. I’m not sure people born after the DVR will understand that. In the early decades of television, a show premiered in its allotted time slot, and then a subset of that season got repeated in the summer reruns. You might fall in love with a particular episode and not get to see it again for decades.
Eventually, popular shows like I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Star Trek made it into syndication. If a fan was patient they could eventually see every episode of a series. Early adopters of VCRs took pride in collecting a complete run of their favorite shows, especially if it took years.
Nowadays fans can watch almost any show on demand. Some TV aficionados only watch a show when it has been completed or canceled so they can see the complete story on DVD or streaming. Meaning, they can watch an entire multi-year series by binge-watching for several days or weeks. After randomly watching about 50 episodes of Perry Mason on MeTV during the last year, I decided to start with season 1, episode 1 on CBS All Access and watch the entire 271 shows in order. They only have seasons 1-5, but I hope they’ll add the rest, otherwise I’ll have to buy the DVDs. (Maybe that’s their intention.)
I have to ask myself: Why Perry Mason? Even though Perry Mason is one of the most popular TV shows ever, it’s artistic quality pales compared to modern television series like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, The Game of Thrones, The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Often when I watch an episode of Perry Mason my mind boggles by how the plot struggles to make any kind of logical sense. And Perry, Della, and Paul are completely lacking in the kind of vivid personal details we expect in 21st-century TV shows. I’ve never liked murder mysteries, never cared whodunit, and I never guess the guilty person while watching Perry Mason. Yet at this time in my life, I find the show very addictive.
I’ve binge-watched nearly of all the most popular television series since The Sopranos so I know Perry Mason is primitive in comparison. According to Wikipedia, “Perry Mason is Hollywood’s first weekly one-hour series filmed for television and remains one of the longest-running and most successful legal-themed television series.” It premiered on September 21, 1957. The contrast between TV storytelling in 1957 and 2018 is startling. The evolution of creating TV shows during those years is worthy of countless Ph.D. dissertations.
The difference between television then and now is so stark, that I can’t imagine younger fans even being able to even watch Perry Mason. Except for one episode, it was filmed in gorgeous black and white. To the current generation, it would be like Baby Boomers having embraced early silent movies in their teens. So, why am I watching Perry Mason now when I could be watching countless superior shows? I think there’s something psychological I need to unearth. And it’s taking the length of a long Atlantic Monthly essay to scope out the problem. I doubt seriously if even my closest friends will want to read all of this, but I feel compelled to write out why. I need to explain it to myself.
Socrates warned us the unexamined life if not worth living. I’ve never argued with that. In the last third of life, such self-reflection seems truer than ever even for the smallest aspects of day-to-day living. Have you ever dissected your soul to find out why you love what you love? Stop a moment and think about that. Why is your gray goo wanting to substitute its current sensory input with data from a video screen? Watching television is a rejection of reality for a substitute, and maybe that isn’t bad, but it is revealing. When we tune in, turn on and drop out, what are we really doing?
Maybe you’ve been asked this deep question of why you love TV before, and maybe not. But let’s take it a little further, just a bit deeper. Have you ever asked yourself why you love to watch television with other people? Or do you? What we watch by ourselves tells us so much about ourselves, but what we watch together says so much more about our relationships. I bet you haven’t thought of that one before.
For almost a decade I’ve watched television with my friend Janis. Until this August, my wife had been working out of town all that time and Janis and I would watch shows together three or four nights a week. Janis moved to Mexico this August, something she’s been hoping to do as long as I’ve known her, and Susan finally got transferred back to Memphis. Susan and I discovered we no longer watch the same kind of shows, not like we did before 2008. Now, every evening we watch the NBC Nightly News and Jeopardy together in the living room, and then I go to the den to watch my shows.
What’s enlightening to me is the shows I choose to watch by myself. I assumed I’d continue to watch all the popular binge-worthy shows I had been watching with Janis. But I’m not. For weeks I tried countless shows but my restless mind could not settle on any of them. I ended up watching old westerns from the 1940s and 1950s every evening.
For the last few years, whenever I’m alone watching TV, I binge on Hollywood classics, westerns, film noir, 1960s comedies, or Pre-Code Hollywood from the early 1930s. These have all been life-long favorites. They’ve also been the kinds of films my friends don’t like watching. Then I got hooked on the 1950s and 1960s television shows I hadn’t seen much of when I was young, like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, and The Fugitive. After Janis moved away I mostly watched westerns for weeks, mixed it with some Perry Mason. Strangely, all these television shows and movies are in black and white. I wonder what that means?
I’ve gone through a number of psychological changes since I retired five years ago, including how I watch television. I’ve been a TV addict since 1956, but the level of addiction and types of shows I craved have changed many times over the years. The hole in my TV watching schedule is making me think about my lifetime relationship with TV and who I watched it with.
Watching TV by myself is so different from social TV watching. Looking back, I realized I’ve mostly been a social television watcher. There have always been shows I watched by myself, but there have been more shows I watched because of other people. When I was young, I watched shows with my family. Once I got past the sixth grade, I loved watching shows with friends, either at my house or theirs. I got a job in high school in 1968 and quit watching television for many years. That ended some friendships. I seldom watched TV in my college years. As I got back into television around 1975, I began social TV watching with a new generation of friends. Then when I got married to Susan in 1978, and we found prime-time bliss. I would watch her shows and she would watch mine. When Susan move to Birmingham to keep her job, my television life fell apart. Then Janis became my TV buddy during the time that coincided with the era of binge-watching on streaming TV. We picked shows that made us want to watch two or three episodes at a time.
For the last few months, I’ve tried many new series, but my mind can’t stick with them. I keep hopping from one show to the next for about ten or fifteen minutes. Every once I a while I could find a series that would hook me like Sisters season 1 or Man in the High Castle season 3, but for the most part, I’d fall back on westerns. Then I got hooked on Perry Mason.
Remembering my television watching habits when I was 5-15 is a hazy affair. I’d love if my memories were perfect. I do have clues. I have memories of my parents always asking me what was on television even from an early age. There were only three channels back then, so I imagine it wasn’t a great feat for a kid to memorize the schedule. One of the first magazines I remember reading is the TV Guide, but I’m not sure how often we bought it, or when my mother started bringing it home from the grocery store.
What I realized now is I watched all kinds of shows back then because sometimes my parents picked them, and sometimes Becky, my sister, and I got to choose. It wasn’t until I, Spy (1965) and Star Trek (1966) that I tried to never miss an episode of a favorite show. That got interrupted in 1968 as I mentioned before when I got my first punch-the-clock job after school in the eleventh grade.
Wanting to see every episode of a television show became a real habit after Susan and I got married. We loved NBC’s Must See TV Thursday nights. Then in this century with whole season DVD sets of television shows and Netflix. Binge-watching a series from the first episode to last become a thing.
I believe part of the attraction to Perry Mason is because it’s a complete work, and available on DVD. It also appeals to me that I can buy The Perry Mason Book by Jim Davidson for my Kindle, a handy-dandy comprehensive episode-by-episode reference guide to supplement my Perry Mason watching. Even though I don’t care about whodunit in a murder mystery, I do care about what model car Paul Drake drove or where a picturesque scene is filmed. One aspect of Perry Mason I love is the location shooting from 1957-1966. The show is full of little details I find compelling.
Of course, these are piddling details. The urge to go deeper into my unconscious pushes me to find greater insight. I’ve known for years that living in the last third of light resonates with the first third. When I was young I was often disappointed with older people when they told me they were clueless about the current pop culture I valued so much. Now that I’m older I know what it means to not be able to keep up. Perry Mason is familiar territory. The beautiful black-and-white photography is comforting. All the then new cars are the ones I coveted growing up and wished I owned now as classic old cars now. Plus the women in their conical bras and tight sweaters are the prototypes of feminine beauty from my earliest memories of horniness.
Back in the 1990s I flew down to Miami and got my old buddy Connell to drive me to a house where I lived in 1955 when I was four. I stood on the sidewalk in front of my old home, the site of some of my earliest memories of playing outside. I felt like I was standing on the Big Bang beginning of my universe. Watching 1957 Perry Mason takes me very close to that origin. It’s the inflationary period when my mind began to be expanded by television.
So, what does this say about my psychology? Why do I pick a 62-year-old TV show to watch by myself at 67? If I watch TV with friends we’d watch a 2018 show. Susan too watches old TV shows by herself, but they are usually from the last decade, except for Friends. Are the shows we pick reflective of the escapism we need? Is the political incorrectness 1957 much easier to handle than political insanity of 2018?
I wonder what my friends watch by themselves and why? Is everyone sitting alone turning back the hand of time? Some people I know have the TV on all day long to keep them company. They tell me it helps with loneliness. I hate hearing a TV in the daytime. I love TV when it’s dark and late, and I’m too tired to do anything else. I realize now that I categorize my friends by which pop culture references we share. I go flicks with some friends and other films with other friends. I share old science fiction with a couple of friends, but not with the rest. My love of westerns requires hanging out with strangers on Facebook to find anyone to share that enthusiasm.
I have one friend that loves Perry Mason but we seldom see each other anymore since she was a work friend and I’m retired. She watches Perry every night at 10:30. I wish I could watch it with her. But she is younger than I, so I’m not sure we resonate with the same aspects of the show? None of my close friends will watch Perry with me. None of them like the old movies and westerns either. This got me to thinking about how our personalities are divided by what we do alone and what we do together.
I went to see Green Book with a friend after getting positive reviews from several other friends. And I know a few other folks who want to go see it. That means we’re all bonded by this one current movie. I like that. Back in my K-12 days, I’d go to school and seek out other kids who had seen the same TV shows the night before. The same thing happened during my work years.
Some people I know get their feelings hurt if you tell them you don’t like their favorite TV show. I don’t. I am disappointed sometimes when someone I like a lot won’t try a current show I love. I feel like I’m making an offer of connection, and they refuse. I don’t care if they end up hating the show. It’s the willingness to try to communicate that counts.
When I go to a party I ask people what they are watching on TV or going out to see at the movies. When I find someone who has seen what I have, and we both are crazy about the story, I actually like the person more. And if I hear a person put down a show I love, I feel like there’s a side to the person I can’t comprehend. It’s like the old generation gap – a pop culture divide.
Comparing tastes in television shows makes me realize just how different people are in my life. What we share is a kind of Venn diagram of commonality, what we don’t, defines our borders. But I wonder. Is it the shows we watch alone that define us the most, or the ones we share with each other?