The Loneliness of Solo Television

Anyone want to discuss ‘The Leftovers’ with me?

Photo by Dave Weatherall on Unsplash

I would really like to discuss the final episode of The Undoing. But what I really want to discuss is how much I like watching television as part of a herd. The advantages of being able to watch anything, anytime, anywhere, are myriad, obviously. Being tethered to a broadcast schedule is frustrating, impractical, anachronistic, I know, I know, I know. First with VCRs and now with streaming, we liberated ourselves from the era in which you had to squint and read the TV Guide, running your finger anxiously up and down the grid to make sure you knew when your show was on.

But once you untether, you also make the experience entirely solitary. No more national Who Killed JR? conversations; no communal groaning at the finale of St. Elsewhere; no office pools on the outcome of Lost. I miss that. Even though watching television has always been a housebound activity, it felt public when we all watched the same things at the same time. Now, like everything else we do, it floats in some milky ether, timeless. For instance, I’m currently watching The Leftovers, long after anyone else I know is watching it, and they’re all talked out about it by now. Damn.

One of my favorite books of sociology is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which tracked the way Americans have disconnected from social and community organizations like bowling leagues and PTA and, not coincidentally, from each other. I definitely like doing what I want when I want, especially when it comes to personal recreation like watching television. But when that rare show like The Undoing occurs that people end up (mostly) watching at the same time, it’s so much fun talking about it together, bitching about it together, analyzing it together (even if “together” means on Twitter) that I get wistful for those ancient, medieval days of television on a schedule.

Let me know if you’re watching The Leftovers. I have a lot I want to discuss.

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own book club (join me!)

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