I’ve Lost My Addiction for TV and I Want it Back

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, March 8, 2020

As a life-long TV addict, I’m going through a bizarre phase where I can’t get into watching TV. I’ve started asking myself: “Why do I watch TV?” I theorize if I can figure out the specific aspects that currently make me love a rare TV story now it might help me find new shows that will hook me in the future. I don’t know if other people have this problem or not. Leave a comment if you do.

Right now the number one factor in me finishing a TV show is whether or not I’m watching it with someone else. Currently, I’m watching Star Trek: Picard on Thursdays with my friend Annie. I watch Jeopardy M-F with my wife Susan. We also watch Survivor together on Wednesday night. For ten years I watched a lot of TV with my friend Janis, but she moved to Mexico. In the year since I’ve only rarely gotten hooked on a series that I’ll watch by myself. My fallback on these restless nights is to put on a Perry Mason episode or graze on YouTube videos. But this week, I’m even having trouble finishing even ten minute YouTube video.

Every night I try three or four new shows hoping to find something I’ll want to binge-watch. And I do find things that just a couple of years ago would have glued me to the set. But for some unknown reason, I lose interest after about 5-10 minutes. That’s even when I’m thinking, “Hey, this is a good story” to myself. It’s an odd sensation to consider a show interesting but then feel “I’m tired of watching” after a few minutes.

I could do other things, but this is my TV time and I don’t want to give it up. If I have enough energy in the late evenings I do switch to reading.

The last two nights I’ve tried Taboo and Ripper Street — shows set in 19th-century England, a favorite time period of mine. Even though I marveled at the historical sets and staging, I couldn’t get into them. A few weeks back I did binge-watch 8 episodes of Sanditon. That makes me wonder if I now prefer polite society to the scum-of-the-Earth strata. I loved watching Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul with Janis, but on my own, I can’t stick with the newer seasons of Better Call Saul.

Thinking about that I do remember I was able to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The Crown by myself. They were nonviolent. However, I loved Black Sails and quickly binged through four seasons, and it was very brutal. Maybe I don’t mind certain bloodthirsty characters. Maybe violence isn’t a factor at all.

What are the elements of a story that draw us in? What makes us watch a screen for hours and hours? Don’t you think it’s rather strange that we spend so much time mesmerized by our television sets? I’ve watched a lot of television in my life — more than most, but less than some. Remember that old meme about your life flashing in front of your eyes when you die? Well, if that happened to me, a third of that vision will be me lying down asleep, and another huge chunk will be me sitting in front of a TV screen. Television must be very appealing since we willingly devote so much of our free time to it. But why?

I recently wrote “What Happened To Science Fiction?” trying to understand how science fiction had changed from Star Trek in 1966, to Star Trek: Picard in 2020. I realized back in 1966 what I loved about science fiction was the ideas in the story. But in 2020, what I loved about Picard was the characters. And in between most SF fans have switched from loving ideas to loving the storytelling. In other words, I felt there were at least three types of appealing qualities to science fiction (which can apply to any kind of fiction:)

  • Ideas/Information
  • Storytelling/Plot
  • Character/People

I still mostly admire fiction for ideas. I love storytelling and characters, but not as much as I love information and details. Picard is interesting because of the character Picard, but also because of Patrick Stewart. Back in 1966, I believe Star Trek acquired a lot of fans for Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, etc., but I liked it for individual episodes with cool science fictional themes. Television used to be very episodic. Now a TV show often has an arc covering a whole season or even multiple seasons. Its appeal is the storytelling and plot. But pure storytelling doesn’t addict me.

We used to be mesmerized by 30 or 60-minute tales. That appeal of television was like enjoying short stories. In fact, 1950s television killed off the pulps and short story magazines. Modern TV, with binge-watching whole seasons, is like reading a novel. We now commit to ten to thirteen hours. Part of my problem might be commitment issues. It used to be committing to a 90-minute movie or 10-hour season was no big deal. Mentally, it is now.

We tend to use television to kill time, to fill up our lives. That suggests we don’t have anything better to do, but I also feel that TV is an art form we admire. That we devote so much time to TV because it is something of quality, and is worthy of our attention. It could be 10-15 minutes is all I’ve got for admiring TV at age 68. And the reason why I can watch for longer periods with other people is I consider it socializing.

I used to watch several hours of TV a day, even by myself, but in my old age, that seems to be a declining skill. Is anyone else having this problem? Since retiring I want to watch a couple hours of TV at the end of the day before going to sleep, but I’m having trouble filling those hours. Last night I tried a half-dozen YouTube videos, fifteen minutes of Ripper Street, and about five minutes of five movies from the TCM on-demand collection. I’ve always had a powerful addiction for old movies, and I went ten years without access to TCM and hungered for it terribly. I recently got TCM again when we subscribed to YouTube TV, but old movies don’t thrill me like before.

Is something wrong with me mentally? Have I just become jaded because of decades of TV consumption. Has a decade of binge-watching multi-season shows worn me out? I feel like a heroin addict who has lost the high but still wants to shoot up. I miss having a TV show I’m dying to get back to watching.

I always thought one of the benefits of old age was getting to watch TV guilt-free. I figured I’d be too decrepit to do much else and assumed my declining health years would be filled with the quiet life of books and TV. Man, I’m going to be up Schitt’s Creek if I can’t watch TV. I need to figure out exactly what turns me on about TV shows so I can find something to watch. Hundreds of scripted series are created each year. There’s bound to be more for me to watch.

I absolutely loved Black Sails because it was a prequel to Treasure Island, and the entire four seasons led up to that story I’ve loved since childhood. I wonder if there are other TV shows based on books I loved. Looking at Ranker’s “The Best TV Shows Based On Books” it’s going to be tricker than I thought. Most of them are based on books I haven’t read, and many of the ones based on books I have read aren’t shows I’ve liked. There must be another psychological element I haven’t considered.

I also loved watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and I think it’s because it’s about a time period I remember. I recall the 1970s too, but The Deuce isn’t that appealing. I’ve been meaning to try some of the shows set in the recent past. I’m looking forward to watching Mrs. America on Hulu, about the second wave feminists. Maybe biographical historical shows set during my lifetime is a noteworthy factor. That might be why I like The Crown so much. And it might explain why I also enjoyed documentaries on Miles Davis and John Coltrane recently.

And thinking about it though, the setting has to be more than just contemporary history. There are lots of shows set in the recent past that don’t work. Evidently, history needs a connection.

Genre shows have also petered out for me. Shows built on mystery or romance no longer work, and even though I still love reading science fiction, TV science fiction has no appeal anymore. Without Annie, I wouldn’t be watching Star Trek. She also got me to stick with The Game of Thrones.

All I know, is every once in a while I do find a show that absolutely addicts me. I just wish I knew what drug it contained that’s addictive.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 thoughts on “I’ve Lost My Addiction for TV and I Want it Back”

  1. James,
    The word you are looking for is “bored”.
    You’re 68. You realize you have essentially “seen it all” before. Faces, names, actors, plots, settings change but at the end of the day, yeah, it is all a rerun of a rerun of a rerun.
    I’m the guy who went through nearly sixty employers in fifty-five years of blue-collar labor. I am also the guy who started writing in that journal on Wednesday 11/21/79. I started working full-time after graduating from high-school, at age 16, on Friday 06/06/69. On Sunday 12/27/87, I started working at job #28. I as 35 years old.
    I wrote this in my journal, in part, as dated:
    Tuesday, January 05, 1988
    The new job was going okay until yesterday. I was making $4.50 hr, good benefits, easy work. But getting bored!…[end]
    That is first time the word “bored” appears in my journal. And because I was writing by hand at the time, I even underlined it to emphasize the thing.
    So just like you, I grew up first watching two channels of television in black & white. Soon there was more channels and, oh my God, it was all in color. Then came cable. Hooray for HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax. All those movies to watch. Christmas of 2010, our older daughter gave me a Wii console…and by January, I had something called Netflix. I dropped everything else.
    And now, ten years later, Netflix, television, all of it, is…boring. Ditto YouTube: Boring.
    And it is all boring as hell not just because of the content–oh, another western, good guys v bad guys…but boring because of the insane “socio-political” “agendas” driving it all. And I won’t even give an example or comment further because yes, that, too, is also boring.
    But perhaps that leads to the perfect way to end the thing. I mean, hell, here in 2020 life is reduced to how people “choose to identify” themselves.
    So I now identify as that old man now sitting on a park bench, feeding the birds and squirrels, shaking my head and mumbling softly to myself.
    There’s plenty of room beside me, James, if you wish to join me. We are those old guys who had our day in the sun and it is time to watch them youngins have their turn. And then they’ll be old sooner then they can possibly imagine and it will be their turn: “Damn, that was boring as hell.”
    Someone once wrote it this way a long time ago: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
    Just think if he had waited, oh, just a couple thousand of years, he could have written it this way: “There is nothing new under the sun…or on television.”

    1. Randy, you might be right. But I don’t feel bored. I’m not restless or anxious to find something to do. I guess I’ve got to find other things in my two-hour television slot. I did buy a kit for learning electronics. And I’ve always wanted to learn to draw. Oh, and I’ve started scanning a 100-year-old book that’s out of copyright that I want to reprint online.

    2. Randy – Like you, I find the neo-Victorian ideological obsessions of the youn’uns tiresome. For instance, I’m fond of reviews of books and movies, but most reviewers now are of this ilk and it irks me when they spend half of their time talking about to what extent a work conforms to their particular agenda. Utterly predictable and oh so boring.

      I rather wish I could live long enough to see their own progeny turn on them and reject their standards. Now that might be amusing.

  2. I’ve also decided to give a new show a try, now and then, only to lose interest in literally five minutes.

    My housemate hogs the TV, and I haven’t upgraded my decoder to one with a hard drive, so I actually get to watch very little TV. We almost never watch anything together, because our tastes simply don’t line up. But even if you gave me carte blanche at the TV, I’m not sure how much TV I’d actually watch. I always turned up my nose at old movies, but now that I’m old myself, I’d love to see them. I have no future, so I might as well indulge myself with a nostalgia trip. It’s hard, though. We don’t even have TCM any more. It has been replaced by something called TNT, which has old movies … not old movies as in Gaslight or National Velvet, but 25 year old action junk starring Stallone or Van Damme or whoever.

    And there’s such a wealth of stuff out there—if you name 50 classic movies, I’ll have seen about five of them, and not in the last few decades, either. So you’ll find me rummaging in the bargain bins of local stores for DVDs of really old stuff. I found On the Waterfront and Zorba the Greek recently, neither of which I’d ever seen, and Midnight Cowboy, which I hadn’t seen for decades, so that’s something, at least.

    But I’m definitely looking forward to the fifth season of Better Call Saul, which hasn’t been seen here yet.

    1. Piet, don’t you have any streaming services for old movies? Roku has many free channels with old movies, but you have to watch commercials. YouTube has some old movies and TV shows you can watch for free. Do you have a DVD rental company in South Africa when you can get DVDs by mail? I’ve thought if I get tired of paying for all these streaming services I wouldn’t mind going back to renting discs.

  3. From reading this blog, I seem to recall that watching TV for you was always a social activity. That seems to be what is lacking now. I’m guessing that you miss the social gathering, not the TV shows.

    1. That’s true Chuck. I do miss watching TV with Janis. Sharing an exciting show makes the show so much better. Another reason I liked Black Sails so much that even though I watched it alone, I’d talk about it with my oldest friend on the phone after every episode. That’s why I was trying Ripper because Connell liked it.

  4. First, I agree that anything repetitive gets boring for humans, even if you put a different dress on it, no matter how much you loved it at one time. I can remember thinking I’d never tire of Beethoven. And it’s not necessarily only the content or details, but the mood we bring on that day. Just like music, different things appeal to us at different times, perhaps influenced by other parts of our day & the moods & demands of the people we’ve interacted with. Some days you like jazzy upbeat fast music, and other days smooth, simple, one-instrument melodies.

    In comparing today’s TV offerings to yesteryear, remember that today there are commercial breaks 3 or even 4 times as long, or 4 times as many, as there used to be, which really interrupt the flow of the storyline. I sometimes find, after 14 minute mini-infomercials, that I’ve completely forgotten not just the story, but even what program I was watching! Ditto if I surf during commercials and stop on another channel, I may finish watching that program having completely forgotten I was in the middle of something else.

    Our pace of life is very fast, with multi tasking and a never-gets-done list in our heads, even if all those things are things we look forward to. But books and TV present information at a slower pace, and it may be hard to synchronize taking in as much detail as we need to truly enjoy the experience. Likewise, if I decide it’s a gorgeous day and I’m going to steal an hour or an afternoon to read on the patio because the other things I wanted to accomplish aren’t that important, that’s only my conscious decision – my subconscious keeps interrupting with “don’t forget” or guilt trips, making it nearly impossible to concentrate.

    I find that time passes much more quickly when I watch TV than when I’m doing other things – even chores, not entertainment or enjoyable activities. I’m always amazed how much I seem to get done with the TV off, even in the background, than how suddenly the day is over if I (apparently) mentally zone out in front of the boob tube. I haven’t thought about why this happens, but I suspect it’s a bit of a hypnotic type thing. Also, “things at rest tend to stay at rest.” 😉

    Then, not to be morbid, but your subconscious may realize that your time is running short, and you may have a hidden desire to do other things or find more concrete accomplishments. Is it possible you might like to embrace this part of your life in another way now, like discussion groups, more or bigger group watching, or even, create your own stories? Maybe you’ve immersed yourself enough that you now have something to contribute instead of just being an observer. It might also be beneficial to just take a break from it, or limit yourself to a short time per day. (Presumably then you’d choose the best of the best?) Absence makes the heart grow fonder?

    I think you’ve been in groups were it’s been discussed how the first reading or viewing is always unique. No matter how good, I think when you know the end, something is lost. You can’t relate to the characters as much as when their future is as uncertain as ours, that first time around.

    Lastly, there’s just plain quality, and I think we can all agree that it has plummeted in the last 25 years or more, even if we’re not so consciously aware of it – one way we may notice it is just what you’ve found – vague discontent. I’ve spoken before about series that are abruptly canceled, leaving the story unfinished – that never feels good to anyone, until I just don’t start watching the most interesting-sounding series. (Charlie Brown syndrome – the football is always jerked away at the last minute.)

    Thanks for the opportunity to play psychiatrist (you’re brave!) Hope this gave you some food for thought.

    “Television is chewing gum for the mind.” – Groucho Marx
    “I find television very enlightening – whenever someone turns it on, I go into another room and read a book.” Also Groucho, 50+ years ago!

    Becky

    1. I’m still not sure the TV shows are boring, or I’m even bored with them. I’m checking out some pretty acclaimed stuff, or shows my friends are addicted to. I’m thinking I’m just going through a restless period. Or my mind just isn’t in the mood to watch TV right now. However, last night I stuck with a whole movie that I watched by myself. Sitting Pretty with Clifton Webb at Mr. Belvedere. So, if I find the right show my mind can settle down.

      Commercials aren’t an issue with me. I won’t watch shows with commercials unless they are recorded and I can skim over them.

      I never want time to pass quickly. I want it to slow down. Every night I dread going to bed because it’s admitting the day is over. Even though I love “wasting” time on naps and just sitting and thinking, I really don’t think it’s wasting time. I love doing all the lazy things in life.

      I don’t think it’s morbid to talk about dying. And I do feel that time is running out. But it’s not imminent enough to worry about watching TV. I never watch TV to kill time. I feel I watch TV because it’s something I really want to do. That’s what’s troubling me. TV is feeling less special. And part of it is I really like to share TV and movies with other people. That does make the shows special.

      I think the quality of TV has gone up in recent decades. There are lots of great shows to choose from too. I really think it’s me and not TV in this instance.

  5. For the last few night my Roger and I have enjoyed doing a jigsaw puzzle instead of watching TV. It is great for relaxation, clearing your mind of everything (mindfulness) being companionable and quite an achievement when its done! I can recommend it.

  6. I, too, lost my taste for TV. From childhood, I watched TV the entire time i was home, always finding something (even when there were only 3 channels plus a couple of UHFs back in the day). But I got more selective as time went on, until I was watching mostly old shows I’d already seen (some really old, like 70s MTM sitcoms). Then there were the reality tv years – Top Chef and Project Runway. But I cancelled cable a few years ago, and now all I watch is Jeopardy (do not bother me from 7:30 to 8 on weeknights!). I do watch Netflix a lot, often series I never bothered to watch when they were on air, but half of that is falling-asleep stuff.
    I went through something similar with moocs. At one point I was taking four, five, six at a time, and they were incredibly valuable, but now, I sign up and unenroll after one video, just am not interested. Part of that was a change in how moocs started operating. I find lots of academic material on youtube for subjects I want to pursue.
    I wonder if we just can’t find the stuff we used to like; producers start aiming at different audiences. Or it just gets so familiar.
    You mention Star Trek. TNG is one of my Netflix staples, but I really don’t want to watch Picard. I feel like I love the character he was in the series, and I don’t want new information, even if it’s good. Maybe I’ll change my mind. I also have a policy about not paying for anything other than Netflix, so that helps. 😉

  7. With the coronavirus outbreak many people are hunkering down and watching more TV. I feel sorry for sports enthusiasts–most sporting events have been cancelled. Like you, I’m skeptical that the quality of TV programming has improved. I do like mysteries from the BBC. I’m tempted to watch AMAZON PRIME Video’s THE PALE HORSE, based on the Agatha Christie mystery. But, mostly, I’d rather be reading or listening to music.

  8. Please don’t give up until you’ve tried The Sandbaggers and Callan! These are two low-budget but well-written and intense English spy-thriller series from the late sixties and early seventies. No flashy effects, just sophisticated dialogue, wry humor, gasp-worthy plot twists, and good old-fashioned psychological warfare. There is the occasional shootout as well. Nobody writes television like this any more.

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