Kill Your Television

Issue No. 2 | February 25, 2022

Friends, Americans, Countrymen:

Television today is a lot like marijuana: far more potent than it used to be, but still widely embraced as harmless fun. We’re not calling for total abstinence (although it works for us), merely suggesting that you approach it with caution. Consider it a controlled substance. Even if claims that binge-watching is addictive are overstated, it’s clear that our algorithm-empowered streaming merchants will help themselves to as much of your time and attention as you are willing to give. “We actually compete with sleep,” says Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. “And we’re winning!” 

 

Just as pot tricks us into thinking we’re being creative, TV tricks us into thinking we’re experiencing something worth talking about. This is particularly detrimental to men, who are natural, instinctive storytellers (especially when it comes to landing a wife). To channel this primal urge into gossip about made-up people in the prestige soap opera du jour is embarrassing and emasculating. 

 

It’s not that you have to have “epic” adventures. Some of the best stories are made from the most mundane circumstances, and many an epiphany has emerged from utter boredom. It’s just a matter of guarding your imagination. Do you really want to fill it with hours of ready-made imagery carefully designed to lull you into a complacent daze?

 

Next time you need to unwind, read an Elmore Leonard novel. Play an instrument. Cook something. Throw a ball against the wall over and over like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining.” Wherever it leads you, it’s bound to be more surprising and compelling than whatever your screen has planned.

 

Provisions

Narrative bloat is the distinguishing feature of 21st century screen entertainment. Do any of these stories really require upwards of ten hours of our ever-dwindling time? It’s time to return to one of the most enduring and popular audiovisual art forms of the last 100 years: the humble feature film.

 

Imagine – a complete and satisfying story told in a breezy 1.5 to 2 hours. And if you don’t limit yourself to what’s trending, you’ve got thousands of options for every age and taste. For a streaming service with more human-scaled curation, try the venerable American concern the Criterion Channel. Any patriotic cineaste will relish this collection of David Lynch films. And for those rare contemporary movies concerned more with your entertainment than with corporate brand management, Kanopy is free to anyone with a library card. 

Training

Just because we’re wired to tell stories doesn’t mean we’re all good at it. Fortunately, this valuable skill is teachable. Professional storyteller Matthew Dicks has written a useful book called “Storyworthy.” He also offers  “Homework for Life,” a course to help people “find and document the stories that already exist in their lives.”  

 

Then there’s improv comedy. If you can get over traumatic memories of watching your roommate’s “troupe” becringe themselves in a dank college basement, learning improv can instill confidence, develop timing, and hone conversational skills. After all, aren’t we all “improvising” when we talk to each other? If there are no classes near you, you can always try some remote training at the genius Will Hines’s World’s Greatest Improv School.

 

Culture

One good thing about the radical transformation of television is the easy access it provides to old “content” that would have been harder, if not impossible, to find in the pre-digital age. One program we’re glad to see featured on a number of streaming services is the delightful crime drama “Columbo.”

Unforgettably portrayed by Peter Falk, Columbo is a disheveled and deceptively unassuming LAPD homicide detective. Each episode begins with a murder, usually committed by an arrogant high-society type, played with gusto by a pre-cable luminary like William Shatner, Robert Culp, or Jack Cassidy. There are no serial killers or psychopaths on display here; murderers on “Columbo” kill for the usual, all too recognizably human motivations of greed, fear, and spite. We know the culprit’s identity from the start; the pleasure comes from watching them squirm as they realize how badly they’ve underestimated the seemingly bumbling, uncouth detective with the wrinkled raincoat and cheap cigar. Hard to go wrong with any of the 69 episodes that were produced between 1968 and 2003, but if you’re looking for a recommendation, 1971’s “Murder By the Book” (directed by a young Steven Spielberg) is a good place to begin.  

Exemplar

Even the most talented and charismatic actors rarely have offscreen lives worth knowing about, let alone emulating. One notable exception is Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart. 

 

Few who enjoy Stewart’s wrenching portrayal of George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” have any idea they’re watching a man fresh from brutal combat in World War II. That’s because he didn’t talk about it; he just poured all that untreated PTSD into his performance. 

 

Already a capable pilot in civilian life, the 33-year-old Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Corps nine months before Pearl Harbor. Not exactly a good career move for an actor who had just won an Academy Award for “The Philadelphia Story.” Stewart resisted the Army’s attempts to sideline him with cushy PR assignments, and ended up a highly-decorated and respected squadron leader, eventually flying 20 bombing missions over Germany. Stewart, who rarely spoke about the war and refused to appear in any movies dramatizing it, remained in the reserve, reaching the rank of Brigadier General. For his two weeks of active duty in 1966, he once again requested combat, and flew bombing missions in Vietnam.

 

For more on Stewart’s wartime experiences, read this interview with Robert Matzen, author of “Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe.”

 

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