I DON'T KNOW WALTER SHAPIRO well, but I do know him. It was, therefore, with a certain amount of apprehension that I saw in a recent Time magazine that Shapiro, a senior writer (there are no junior writers at Time), had watched an entire week of prime-time television, "50 hours of sex-and-sass sitcoms," taping some shows and later fast-forwarding them -- zzsglurp -- and so, naturally, I feared for him and his mental health and wondered, as I read the piece, not what he had found, but what watching all that television had done to him. I'm sorry, but I can't tell you.
I can't tell you because Shapiro (whom I don't know well) wrote an article I cannot understand. The fault is not his, but mine, because of all the shows he mentioned -- 22 of them -- only one, "L.A. Law," is familiar to me, although it's been more than a year since I've seen it. As for the others, including "Roseanne," I have either never seen them at all or only in snatches. I have, for instance, seen 15 minutes here or there of "Hunter."
But "A Different World" means nothing to me. Never in my life have I seen "21 Jump Street" or "Nasty Boys." This is true also of "The Marshall Chronicles," "Married With Children," "Murphy Brown" and "Working Girl." I did see half an hour or so of "Capital News" because, I was told, it was based on life at The Washington Post and created by a former colleague. But something happened -- I don't recall what -- and I turned it off, never again saw it, and now the show is gone, canceled: just like that, all that publicity notwithstanding.
I am not a television snob. I do not choose not to watch because, for some reason, I feel the medium beneath me. In fact, I turn to it often, which is when I see those 15 minutes of "Hunter" or "China Beach," which has always looked interesting. But what I find is that shows on commercial television have become like those series on public television. Miss one episode and you're a goner.
Little by little I have come to look upon my television set as a party I have not been invited to or, to get really to the point, a group of people who have lunch together every day in the cafeteria. One day, out of kindness, they ask you to sit down. You do, and they just resume their conversation, one they have been having for years. They drop names and cite mutual experiences, and you don't have the foggiest idea what they're talking about. It was always like that for me with those PBS things, "Upstairs, Downstairs," for instance, or, better yet, "Brideshead Revisited." After missing an episode or two, or more, I would tune in and never understand what was happening. Who were those people and what were they talking about?
It's the same now with commercial television. Over time, I've been elbowed out. I tried once to watch "Designing Women," coming in, as usual, after the episode had started. Who were these women and what did they do for a living? Did they all live together in what looked like a house but could be an office? Each of them made jokes at the others' expense, but you had to know something about the women to know why it was funny. A man made an appearance, but it was not clear if he was, as they say, linked to one of the women. In fact, nothing was clear, and I turned off the set.
As with the cafeteria conversation, attempts are made to make you feel at home. From time to time, something is explained. But every time that's done, it's just more acknowledgment that you don't belong -- that much happened before you arrived and a whole lot will happen after you leave. With television that feeling is almost unbounded. I see not only the programs but the people who watch them as a vast clique, and I am watching not only the show but the people watching the show. I am a stranger once removed, and so, sensing that, I remove myself to, say, a National Geographic special. The life of the antelope is an uncomplicated affair.
I found this also happened to me with sports. Once, I was a baseball fan, but my fanhood lapsed. More recently, though, many of my friends have become zealous fans, and so, attempting to join in their conversation, I tried to interest myself. I couldn't do it. Okay, I didn't really want to do it, but I did make an effort. But my friends mentioned teams that did not exist when I was a fan, rules I never heard of. The game had gone on without me. Fine, I said. Go on. Back to the antelope.
With television, things are even worse. Once, I watched quite a bit. Tell me the day of the week, and I could recite that night's schedule. But I've found that one cannot be an occasional television viewer, that unlike parenting, there is no such thing as quality time. You have to stay with it, permit it to set your schedule instead of the other way around. It has become a self-referential medium. Semi-famous (or semi-obscure) stars of nighttime television appear on daytime game shows or drop in on Arsenio Hall for a hug, a kiss and a shower of compliments. When I learn that the average person watches something like 30 hours of television a week, I'm not surprised. It's the only way to watch.
Walter Shapiro immersed himself in a week's worth of television and found most of it putrid. Again, I am not surprised, although I would not have been surprised, either, if he had found it better than he had expected. But his chief problem is that he was an interloper, an alien in the closed world of television, and what he did not understand was that he was observing a group, a family, a clique to which he does not belong. He could watch, but he could never understand. Next time, Walter, call me. We'll play poker.