I was not a big TV person when I was a kid. I loved cartoons as much as any other red-blooded American child, but I typically preferred to lock myself in my room with a book or four – or, later on, to zone out in front of the computer for hours at a time doing God knows what. My love and appreciation for a damn good TV series didn’t set in until I was about 16, when I happened to catch the season-one finale of 24 with my dad and brother. I was hooked and I proceeded to watch the entirety of season two in less than a week.
The fever really began to settle in after one Thanksgiving when my cousins introduced me to the US version of The Office – and things came full circle early this year, when I finally decided to get over the fact that Steve Carell had left the show and finish it already. And boy, was I not let down. Boy, did I love that finale. (Boy, was I PMSing when I watched it, and oh Lord, if I had known on the first day I ever saw the show back in 2006 that I would be PMSing when I watched the finale, I would have started stocking up on Kleenex right then and there). It was that moment (and, a few weeks earlier, almost losing it after seeing Aaron Paul kiss Dean Norris right on top of his bald head on stage at the 2014 SAG Awards – same bout of PMS) that made me realize I wanted to do something to pay tribute to TV and figure out why I love it so much. I think I finally know.
Most of the shows that we watch are relatively true to life – they feature real humans doing real human things – but usually with the exception of one element, a plot premise that slightly (or sometimes extremely) divides the storyline from our reality. In Mad Men, it’s as simple as the time period. In The Office, it’s the percentage of freaks per square cubicle. In Grey’s Anatomy, it’s the absolutely unbearable shitstorm of terrible things that happen to everybody on an almost daily basis. While watching Veep, we know (or at least hope) that the vice president of the United States would never act like that. And studies have shown that there is no way in hell that Carrie Bradshaw could actually afford to own that many pairs of Manolos.
I met Darren Star once, and I don’t know what this means, but he said that the show was just Carrie’s dream.
(This is a veiled reference to TWO different shows. Leave a comment below if you can guess both and I will literally mail you five dollars. No, Sex and the City is not a correct answer.)
These kinds of unrealistic details are frustrating to some people, but to me they’re what make TV worth watching. Obviously, if we were to watch a show where everything played out exactly as it would in real life, we would be bored to death – but to me, it goes beyond mere escapism. I think we grow to love these characters and their stories so much because we resonate with them at their most ridiculous moments – or at least, we want to.
I recently heard someone describe human beings as ducks, in that we look pretty calm on the surface, but underneath we’re all furiously paddling as we try to get where we want to go – or even just to stay afloat. Not so on TV. All that furious paddling is apparent to anyone watching. That’s the only way to see the story progress. We get the outside (or, in the interest of extending the duck metaphor, the underwater?) perspective we lack in looking at our own lives and those of the people around us. We see the arc of each character’s story the way you can see the curvature of the Earth from space (profound). TV characters don’t hide as much about themselves as real-life people do – and even if they did, we, as the viewers, would be privy to it.
In dance and a lot of other art forms, it’s often the movements that feel too big during their creation that are the ones that look just right to the audience. In television, the characters who are larger than life are the ones who are the most fun to watch. TV characters are exaggerated versions of who they’d be in our world – concentrated and unadulterated personalities, like we would be without any regard to consequences or the opinions of others. It’s refreshing to see people being themselves, for better or worse – whether it’s Liz just being Liz, or watching the It’s Always Sunny gang act out the awful impulses and voice the terrible thoughts we all have on occasion (I’m often tempted to smash ’em up for no apparent reason, is that just me?). On TV, no matter what someone’s most defining character trait is – awkward, douchy, repressed, adventurous, defiant – you see that trait reflected in everything they do. They are extreme, and there’s no pretending to be less whatever than they really are – everyone’s just letting their freak flag (or bitch flag, or dark and twisty flag) fly.
But the thing I love the most about watching these characters do what they do is the way it propels the story forward. If they acted like most of us do on a daily basis – denying our flaws, hiding our feelings, trying not to make a splash (it’s still going) – then not a whole lot would ever happen to them. When we try to smooth over who we really are, we don’t grow, and it is this that makes TV so exhilarating – the rate at which things happen. It keeps us interested, but it also always gets me thinking – why can’t our own lives be a little more like that? Why shouldn’t we kick things up a notch, be just a little bit more outrageous, ruffle a few feathers every once in a while and see what happens? (Metaphor still in play.) Maybe it seems dramatic, but TV – far more so than movies, whose format I think is much less similar to life – always makes me want to be a little more extreme, to act on some of my more reckless impulses instead of burying them deep.
I don’t walk around asking myself what I would do if I was a character in a TV show – but if I did, I would probably be a lot bolder. I’d be thinking about what I could do that would move my story forward, and on the flip side, what would keep me where I’m at. A bad day probably wouldn’t bother me as much, because I’d remember that next week would come a new episode where everything could change – I’d see hurdles as plot twists and I’d be able to look really good all the time even while under copious amounts of stress. I’d try to consider the limitedness of my foresight and the relativity of my own perspective. And I’d probably focus more on just having a heck of a lot of fun, no matter how crappy my circumstances.
But I mean, that’s just me.
“There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn’t that kind of the point?”
-Pam Beesly Halpert, last words of The Office