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2013 Spring Issue 3 (April 26, 2013)

Entertainment or Escapism? On Watching Television

April 28, 2013
By Drew Higgins

“If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV,” reads a poster I recently came across on the Internet titled “The Holstee Manifesto,” published in 2009 by Holstee, a Brooklyn apparel company. It is composed of fifteen quasi-inspirational advice sentences, such as “do what you love” and “getting lost will help you find yourself.” But the advice about not watching TV is by far the most concrete and practical of the bunch, and it therefore drew my attention more than the abstract sentences.

I’ve gone through periods where I’ve watched a lot of TV and periods where I’ve watched almost none; the truth is, TV or no, if you want to waste time you’ll find a way. But the concept of giving up TV entirely is compelling, because it leads me to wonder why exactly I, or anyone for that matter, watch it.

It seems that when I’m feeling stressed, tired, bored, depressed, or a combination of all these emotions, my first instinct is to turn on the TV (or queue up Netflix). In high school, exhausted after a long day, I usually came home, made a snack and watched a TV show or two. I looked forward to this time because it was the moment I could let my mind go absolutely blank. Most obviously, and unlike the rest of our lives, watching TV doesn’t require much thinking.

But it is not an entirely passive pastime either. In fact, I’d argue it’s the opposite—the best kind of TV invites you to participate fully by becoming so utterly absorbed in a show that you lose your awareness of self. Fully captivated, your thoughts become separate, almost dream-like, and you are able to connect and invest yourself in the story and images that are being presented.
It sounds peculiar, but this process happens with other diversions as well. We’ve all read book that are so enthralling we feel as if we are one of the characters, and that we too are experiencing the events of the plot. This idea is essentially that of living vicariously through another medium and it’s not an exclusive feature to television.

It is, however, perhaps most easy to do with television. Simply said, reading requires more mental work. Movies can require more patience and a longer attention span. It depends, too, on the genre of the medium. Some novels, like many of James Patterson’s books, read like movie plots, and there is clearly variation in the quality of TV shows—The West Wing is different from Extreme Couponing; TLC’s programming is not the same as AMC’s. It would appear that certain shows are more conducive to total zoning-out, mind-numbing escapism into another world.
I like to think I’m above bad television, but nothing could be further from the truth. I have a secret (not completely not-secret) obsession with terrible shows. Sure, I watch some shows I consider “quality TV” (Parks & Recreation, Mad Men), but I’ve also watched all six seasons of Dawson’s Creek (128 episodes; 60 minutes per episode…you do the math), and multiple episodes of Awkward., Sister Wives, and Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry?.

Bad television is the gold mine of relaxation because it doesn’t waste time on trying to be good. Its only concern is being captivating, and it therefore can take you to an entirely different place on days when you don’t want to be inside your own head anymore.

Which is not to say that television doesn’t have legitimate entertainment or artistic value; we certainly watch television for these reasons as well. Yet, I find that intermixed with those nobler impetuses is the impetus to escape via television.

Of course, the issue with escaping through anything is that you can never really do so. Once the TV shows ends, the issues or emotions that were plaguing you before it began are often not gone at all, but rather, right where you left them. Escaping isn’t relief—it’s only procrastination from coping or doing.

It’s vital that we evaluate why we do the things we do. When we feel such a strong urge towards a particular thing, we should ask ourselves, why do I want to do that right now? Because if the answer is, I want to watch TV because I’m sad, tired and stressed about school, friends, work, etc., we should take pause. Perhaps there are more productive ways to deal with those sentiments.

Naturally, the ways we chose to deal will differ depending on the individual, but I believe they will always be dealing and not escaping. Escapism is not the same as relaxation, entertainment and downtime. Parsing out the differences between these things is crucial if we would like to not merely delay, but to truly alleviate, our stress and stressers.

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