The revolution was televised – but I missed it because I was too busy grading papers.
I have such mixed feelings about the intensity of my teaching career. On the one hand, I loved my work. Every time I see pictures of one of those silly dot-com start-up offices with the Nerf basketball hoops and people bouncing around on stability balls or whatever, I think These people have no idea what fun is. They have to import the trappings of fun because they have no teenagers around to provide the real thing.
On the other hand, a whole decade of my life is gone. And I’ve never even found time to watch The Sopranos.
The revolution Sepinwall describes in this book concerns television. He identifies twelve shows made between 1997 and 2012 (and a few of their 20th-century precursors) that represent a fundamental shift in what TV writers and directors think of as the limits of their genre. Since most of my readers are probably not boarding school teachers (teachers are WAY too busy to read blogs), you could probably make your own list of shows from this era that were innovative and challenging. But just in case you can’t, here’s Sepinwall’s list: Oz, The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Before I read this book, I had heard of eleven of these shows (all but Oz), although I thought Battlestar Galactica was a sci-fi series from the ‘70’s (it was, but it was remade and significantly changed in the ‘00’s). I had watched two of them (Lost and Mad Men) from start to finish (or from start to the most recent episode, in the case of Mad Men, which I watched in its entirety after I left teaching). I’ve watched several dozen episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, enough to understand its general premise but not enough to really understand how the characters grew and changed over the course of the series (I was really hoping that Sepinwall would explain how Buffy suddenly acquired a teenaged younger sister halfway through the series – but no dice). I’ve watched a dozen or so episodes of Breaking Bad when AMC was running a marathon of the entire series last December (again, after I quit teaching), and while I found the first few episodes pretty compelling, I lost interest when I went to bed and woke up in the morning to find a bunch of men in suits threatening everyone with machine guns. I’ve seen the first episode of The Wire and didn’t like it, though Sepinwall says everyone dislikes it after the first episode. The remaining five shows I know by name only – although the son of one of the actors of 24 attended one of the schools where I worked for a while. I didn’t even know that The Sopranos had a psychiatrist in it.
I’ve never imagined myself whining on the internet that my life is ruined because I missed a lot of good TV shows. For portions of my adult life (1994-99, 2007-09), I didn’t own a TV and didn’t miss it. When I was teaching, I rarely had time to watch TV at all until 10:00 or so at night, and then there were the Tae Kwon Do years, when I was never home in the evenings, ever. If I thought about TV at all during these years, it was to grumble that reality shows had taken over and to moan about the lost sitcoms of my youth: Cheers and Night Court and Growing Pains and Perfect Strangers and Mr. Belvedere and Benson and so many, many more.
Sepinwall’s thesis – and, given my intense reaction, we can assume that he defends it well – is that ever since the “revolution” that began with The Sopranos, serial TV drama – not movies, not books, not other art forms – has become the art form that defines our culture in the early 21st century. I don’t necessarily want this to be true (as you may have noticed, I’m a book person), but I think there’s a good chance that Sepinwall is right. I want to cringe and complain that books are superior to TV, but then I remember that I want to try to stop thinking of reading as a moral act, as something that makes a person “good” (if she reads classics), “trashy” (if she reads romance novels, or “stupid” (if she doesn’t read at all). If reading is morally neutral, then other forms of interacting with narrative are probably morally neutral too.
Once, during the long struggle with health issues that led to me quitting teaching, I complained to my therapist that when I got home from work at night I was so tired that I couldn’t do anything except sit on the couch and watch TV. This complaint was prompted by the fact that many, many of my co-workers were overachievers. Boarding school teachers usually are. They train for marathons, triathlons, and ultras, waking at 4 am or earlier to train. They are wonderful, dedicated parents to their children. They grade entire sets of essays the very day their students hand them in. They carry on long-distance relationships and take courses at night toward their master’s degrees and write poetry and fly off on the weekends to attend their college friends’ weddings. They spearhead fundraisers and do volunteer work and are always taking on new committee work, coaching assignments, and other duties at work, and during vacations they take exciting trips all over the world (often with students!) while I lay in bed and moaned that my ribs hurt. When I complained that I had no energy for anything but TV, my therapist looked at me strangely and said, “Do you realize that the life you just described is the average American’s idea of a perfect life?”
I was alarmed. “What??” I asked.
“Ask around,” my therapist said. “Ask a random sampling of Americans what kind of life they want, and at least two-thirds of them will say the same thing: they want a job that pays the bills, and at night they want to sit down on the couch and watch TV until they fall asleep.”
I don’t know many people who fit her model – though I suspect that a few might be out there – and she seemed puzzled by mine.
I don’t know how the things I’ve written here qualify as a review of Sepinwall’s book; in fact, I don’t think they do. But as I was reading the book, I didn’t know whether to be dismayed about how much I missed or excited about all the great shows I can watch on DVD or on Netflix. What I felt, mostly, is that the nature of my career in the first decade of the 21st century cut me off from the rest of my generation. A long time from now, I imagine myself sitting in the gloomy common room of second-rate retirement home somewhere, listening to all my fellow nonagenarians reminisce about the great TV dramas of our young adulthood. “Tony Soprano?” I will say, desperate to fit in. “Is he that kid who sold his mother’s Vicodin in order to pay off his phone bill?”
So there you go.