Things I Learned from TV in 11 Days in America


Michael Who? (photo courtesy of Businessinsider.com)

My goals this holiday break were simple.

Do

Nothing

I’ve had a terribly busy four months. I have added two jobs to my life, editor/proofreader for a translation company and writer for a literary humor website. This, on top of teaching, research, writing a novel, and blogging, has made me one swamped dude throughout the autumn and winter. So when late December finally reared its white-topped head, I stood in my window bellowing “take me, take me, take me.”

There’s a chance that was misinterpreted by my downstairs neighbor, who now looks at me with a look at once disturbed and hopeful.

My rules for home were to be almost completely free of responsibility. I told the translation company I wasn’t available until January and I told my university that I wouldn’t have my computer. I didn’t look at my university email once. I vowed to do only my blog and otherwise not to do any serious writing. I allowed myself only to make notes and jot in a journal.

I wore comfy pajama pants for most of the break. I worked a foot groove into my new Christmas slippers. I sat in a rocking chair, in preparation for old age. I drove a car a few times, but really under duress and subsequent protest. I knew I was taking my responsibility-free two weeks a tad too seriously when a friend asked me to meet her downtown and I was so insulted that I almost defriended her on Facebook.

What I did was watch movies and television. And I remembered how much there is to learn just from watching television and movies. For instance, to sell something on daytime television you need only be Joe Namath or have a British accent. I learned that there is something of a midday Bermuda Triangle where movies and shows that nobody watches still exist. Car 54 Where are You? Ned and Stacy. Tron. A Christmas Story 2. They exist there in something like the Misfit island in Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, forgotten, but unable to be gone for some horrific reason.  

In the evening, I was forced to watch movies and TV I’d otherwise avoid. In Prague I can stream or download whatever I want, but in the U.S. I was limited to a preset schedule of viewing options. It was all so 1998. But I was unwilling to leave my rocking chair, so I found movies in between football games and I watched and I observed.

I learned that there is nothing more unreal than the big American family in a Christmas movie. And just to be clear, I’m not talking about Hallmark movies. I mean Hollywood. In these movies, the family parentals have a huge, pleasantly lived-in house in the country. The parents are obnoxiously understanding. The siblings represent a scope of personality tropes: the funny wacky one who never quite fit in but was OK with that, the bitchy sister, the sensible older sibling, the bratty kid sister, the alternative lifestyle having Bohemian, who is either gay, single, or pot smoking, or is dating a gay black pot-smoker. These families interact in a way that is just so unreal that it’s almost an insult to people with families.  

The reality of the world’s occupations are vastly misrepresented too. Writers in movies live in apartments only affordable in real life by lawyers. A modest $13,000 a month two bedroom walk up with twenty windows, wooden floors, and within walking distance to a quaint café. The writers are always, always, down-to-earth everypeople void of habits that are perceived as genuinely negative (they might have a sink full of dishes, but they’re never caught picking their nose.) They don’t have to find someone to sell their work to, someone always approaches them to buy their work. Lawyers in movies always eat hotdogs from street vendors, just to show us that they remember their roots. Doctors have eschewed, or by the end of the movie will eschew, the world of financial gain associated with being a physician in lieu of community medical care. A secretary’s entire job consists of chasing a person halfway into an office shouting “Hey, you can’t go in there!” before the boss begrudgingly waves them off. Teachers hit the deepest, most philosophical point of a classroom discussion roughly nineteen seconds before the bell rings. And a good rich person knows the names of all the lowly people who work in his neighborhood.   

We move on to relationships. The best friend in a movie is a slightly chubby woman who’s happy with her lonely lifestyle and her great career. Or he it is a slightly chubby man who’s a loving family man and therefore it doesn’t matter that he’s not as hot as our hero. They both have a great sense of humor. Diane Keaton would make a great mother. John Mahoney a great dad. And any of the Wilson brothers a great brother. A great deal of women will either fall into or out of love with Greg Kinnear. Hugh Grant has played the same character, the wealthy yet awkward, super handsome yet somehow charmingly unsure of himself guy, that he is actually bored with it. You can see it on his face. In the movie. And 60% of the things Indiana Jones said to women would end him up an outcast on social media in today’s world.

Oh sure, there was more. Lots more. Though I never saw Michael Strahan on the show with Kelly Ripa, there’s no way Ryan Seacrest holds a candle to him. That man cannot tell a story. All paid (and most unpaid, I guess) football coaches are completely miserable assholes. The people selling hair during the daytime are so good that I grabbed my phone a few times before remembering that I didn’t need their product. Same goes for the electrolysis people. All of the World War II movies made before 1961 were ridiculous. And nobody on this planet is enjoying his life more than Shaquille O’Neal.

It’s amazing what you can learn if you just stop thinking for a while and start noticing stuff. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere, but sadly I have to get back to work now.   

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