When I was seven years old, I inherited my parents’ old black and white television set. I could never fall asleep as early as everyone else in the house, so I watched whatever was on until Johnny Carson at 11:30 PM, when I could relax. I felt like he could see me through the TV, and therefore I wasn’t alone. I’d leave the TV on as a night light, waking up at Three AM to the buzz of the target on the screen.
I had a philosophy teacher in college who told us that people who leave the TV on for company are fooling themselves, but I didn’t like him anyway.
Delilah, my childhood Doberman pinscher, used to sleep on my bed during the day, so she watched TV with me sometimes. I don’t think she cared much for it though. Maybe she liked the steady hum of the TV in the background of her dreams. She just liked being with me, especially if I had snacks in my room, or was up in the middle of the night. In a way, I was the TV show she watched.
From an early age, I would read through my TV guide with a highlighter and count up how many shows I could look forward to in the coming week. My favorite issues of the magazine were the ones at the end of the summer that previewed the new shows for the fall. It was just like getting my new school books in August and being able to preview all of the potentially exciting homework for the year ahead, and similarly disappointing by October and November when school and TV turned out not to be as wonderful as I’d hoped.
I never felt satisfied by children’s television. There were times, watching The Smurfs, where I saw glimpses of my real life, in the tininess of the smurfs compared to the enormous Gargamel, but most of the time, shows for children portrayed us as super powered beings, as if the average eight-year old could overcome abuse and war and neglect without any help. I needed Wonder Woman to come to my house and help me, not to always be helping the government. I needed the Bionic Woman to hear me with her super hearing, and run to scoop me up, and jump out of the window with me in her arms. And I needed some explanation of how these children on TV were able to survive, because it didn’t make sense to me.
I didn’t like the way the adult characters in kid’s shows talked so slowly and with such simple language, as if I were an idiot. That’s not how real people talked. I liked Cookie Monster, though, because he would start out counting and then just start shoving cookies in his mouth and losing control. This I could relate to.
I watched mostly shows meant for adults, instead. I felt like these were my teachers. In school we never talked about real life. There was no discussion of how often to take showers, or which clothes to wear, or how to earn money, or how to make friends. There was an endless list of rules that everyone else seemed to live by automatically, and I couldn’t find the list anywhere.
I loved The Love Boat. I didn’t understand that it was unrealistic. I thought the floating, fizzy feeling of the show was completely possible in real life. Even when dark things happened, the tone of the show was never dark. And a little girl got to live on the ship, and be doted on all the time, and her Dad was the captain, and there was a cruise director planning activities, and everyone was so happy to be there.
For some reason I really liked The Fall Guy with Lee Majors as a bounty hunter. I liked that his job was to catch bad guys, and that he worked so hard to do it. In my real life, the adults I knew would have given up as soon as it started to look difficult or dangerous. I loved his persistence.
My favorite shows were the ones that made better lives seem possible. Like on Kate and Allie, where these two divorced Moms, with three kids, shared a house. I loved the idea that friends could be your family, and that you could depend on them and not have to survive on your own. On One Day at a Time, a divorced woman moved out with her two teenage daughters to live in an apartment in the city, and it was not sugar coated at all. The point of the show seemed to be that women can do this; they can start over, even when it’s hard, even when things go wrong along the way. And I wanted to believe in that.
I still believe in the transformative power of TV shows, but I think we need a better idea of how to present it. Two dimensional images on a screen are not enough. Maybe the images could be projected, like holograms, into the room. Cricket and Butterfly would love that! We’d need a less furnished room to watch TV in, so that the characters wouldn’t be projected onto the coffee table or impaled by a lamp. And maybe there could be a device we’d wear, like a sensor on our foreheads that would see how we’re feeling and pick a show to fit our needs. Cricket would get a laser light show, so she could chase the lights around the room until she was exhausted, and then there’d be soothing music to help her take a nap. Butterfly would get bird songs, in stereo, all around the room. And she’d need some smell-o-vision, and a treat dispenser, and maybe an automatic scratchy hand she could go over to when she’s itchy.
And for me, as a kid, I would have loved to have recognition that I was there in the room, and that I mattered; that the TV show only came to life because someone was watching it. Even better, a character on the TV could wave to me, and say, Rachel looks tired, maybe we shouldn’t have a smash ‘em up car chase right now, let me go get my acoustic guitar.