Requiem for the Boob Tube

I grew up on a steady diet of sitcoms, westerns, and police dramas, with a dash of science fiction for good measure. After-school indulgences included half-hour reruns like Gilligan’s Island, The Munsters, The Rifleman, and The Brady BunchStar Trek came on each weekday at 5.

Mom would usually have dinner ready by the time Dad got home from work — just after 5:30 — so I often missed the last 20 minutes of the episode. It was indeed a rare treat to negotiate a deal with her and watch for the full hour, which meant sharing a tiny table tray in the living room with my brother while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner in the kitchen.

By junior high I was hooked on grown-up sitcoms like M*A*S*H and cop shows like Baretta and Starsky & Hutch. Sunday nights meant sitting on the couch with my parents to watch Kojak or Columbo. My crush on Hawkeye Pierce was just as strong as my admiration for the police lieutenant in the rumpled tan raincoat. To see Columbo suddenly drop his absent-minded-professor routine and ensnare the killer during the final moments of each episode was to understand the word shrewd.

The one constant in all of this TV consumption was the bliss of a shared viewing experience.

Whether sitting next to my siblings and wondering if Captain Kirk would make it back to the Enterprise unscathed, or clutching my dad’s arm during a high-speed, two-car police chase, I felt an intimate human connection. As fellow consumers, we witnessed each other’s spontaneous reactions to the stories being depicted on the TV screen. Sometimes our responses were the same. We might gasp in unison during a cliffhanger ending, or share a raucous laugh after a hilarious one-liner. We might even catch each other crying during an especially poignant program.

All in the Family was the show that really brought us all together. The entire family, including my grandparents and my aunt, would gather around the TV set to giggle over Archie’s malapropisms and cheer on Edith’s sweetness.

These days I do appreciate the convenience of online streaming and apps, and I can relate to the consumer urgency captured in a phrase like “on demand.” After stumbling upon a review of Kim’s Convenience a few months ago, I consumed half a season of the Canadian sitcom in a single weekend, thanks to Netflix. When Anthony Bourdain died, my grieving process included cradling my iPhone and binge-watching several seasons of Parts Unknown.

And yet I mourn the decline of the communal viewing experience. I miss the thought of family and friends huddled around a television to watch a beloved program — even one in grainy black-and-white. I miss the need to plan ahead for a show that comes on once a week at a certain time. There was a bit of magic in knowing that as I fluffed the pillow on the family couch to get ready for my favorite program, countless others across the country might be doing the same thing.

Flat-screen TVs, fancy smartphones, and streaming services are all nice. But when left to our own devices, what might we also be missing?

Originally published in Medium.

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