When I was growing up, Friday nights meant Mom, Grandma, my sister and I sitting in the basement with the television tuned to CBS and the strains of the "The Dukes of Hazzard" theme music emanating from the console color TV's mono speakers. After the theme song came the commercial break, during which snacks were retrieved from the kitchen, conversations were had among us family members, and an occasional phone call from friends or extended family was taken. By the time the citizens of Hazzard had survived whatever misadventure the writers had managed to throw at them in the span of an hour, the closing credits would roll and another commercial break, during which we made bathroom runs, and then the opening credits and theme song of the next show would begin. It was a kindlier, gentler time for lovers of TV.
Nowadays, though, TV has become a fully immersive process, with theme songs scrapped for cold opens that thrust the viewer immediately into the action, and closing credits that bleed seamlessly into the next show, leaving a viewer barely able to digest whatever dramatic action just occurred. And don't get me started on what happens within the show with non-linear narratives that circle and bend so much that they've yielded a new phrase: "twisty."
Screenwriter Shonda Rhimes - the talented mind behind "Grey's Anatomy", "Private Practice", "Scandal" and "How to Get Away with Murder" - is the Queen of Twisty, with plotlines that send a viewer to the edge of their seats in the opening seconds of a show and then grab you by the collar, pulling you onto your feet and up onto your tippy-toes before hurling you against a wall and kicking you in the gut after you've dropped to the floor. That's "twisty". "Twisty" could also be used to describe the level of physical gore that Ms. Rhimes manages to pump into, or, maybe more accurately, out of, her characters. So violent is the imagery that she puts onto the television screen that I'm forced to look away frequently with the mute button on until my husband yells "all clear"! Television has literally become all-consuming with a "don't-look-away-or-you'll-miss-it" attitude that's becoming a turn-off. I was three-episodes into "How to Get Away with Murder" before I realized what the hell was going on and by the end of the season I was glad for the summer hiatus.
And if the plotlines don't exhaust you, trying to stay caught up on your favorite shows on Hulu, OnDemand, and TiVo will. If you have any sort of a life and can't watch your favorite show during its first run, then you're doomed to schedule an alternate time to watch your shows. A work change forced me to watch an entire season of a show via OnDemand. I felt like I was handed a homework assignment. My adjusted viewing schedule also meant that I had to avoid all social media, since people love sharing plotline reveals as if they had some juicy gossip! Another thing I avoid is Netflix (sorry, not sorry) and the binge-watching trap. The idea of being tethered to my TV for a day and a night because I have to watch the entirety of a season's episodes of "House of Cards" is astounding to me, especially when there's not a blizzard or I'm not recovering from a really awful flu that forces me onto my sofa for a 48-hour period.
Do we need this generation's version of former First Lady Nancy Reagan telling us to "just say no" to being consumed by television? Does current First Lady Michelle Obama have to personally come into our living rooms to say, "let's move", in order for us to step away from the flatscreen? I don't know what the answer is, but I know that the producers and writers and directors of TV aren't going to solve this problem, especially when they created the problem. They took the passive TV viewers of past generations and made them into active participants generating their own content based on the shows we watch. We tweet, we Facebook, we Instagram our way through these shows - sharing our reactions with the world, or just that little corner of our world where other fans of this particular show join in virtual community with each other. Who has time for snacks or the bathroom when there's breaking news about a character who was killed/not killed/kidnapped that has to be shared with your social media followers?
You know, I'm starting to think that maybe TV hasn't become more demanding - maybe we've become more demanding and TV is just trying to catch up with us! Maybe we need to create a community for ourselves that stretches beyond our lonely couches and out into the world. Maybe we need television to consume us because we no longer allow ourselves to be consumed by things that really matter anymore. I mean I can always count on Shondaland to serve up twists and turns every Thursday night, but can I deliver the same high when I'm the screenwriter of my own life?