Culturally IIlliterate—TV Shows I’ve Never Seen

Norman Mailer, I think, said television is something to appear on, not something to watch. My television appearances have been miniscule compared to Mailer’s omnipresence in the 1970’s, but I do understand the sentiment. I wish I could watch more TV, but I just can’t find the time. There’s always something I’d rather do than look at that “small and modest malignancy, wicked and bristling with dots,” even if that something is staring out a window and considering anchovies and their place in my universe.

Still, to be culturally aware, a man should know the forces that shape that culture. I don’t, and I feel sort of guilty about it, guilty enough to confess my sins without seeking absolution or forgiveness. I brainstormed a list last night of 20 or 30 very popular programs of the past 30 years, a list of shows of which I’ve never seen a single episode and of which I don’t necessarily know the premise or theme. Here are some of them, along with the bits I think I know.

Three shows head the list of “I can’t believe you’ve never seen X!” First, Star Trek in any of its television incarnations. Even though my parents watched the show when I was little, my friends believe a whole theology underlies it, and it is a huge cultural force, I missed all of it. I believe it involves a space ship, a Captain Kirk, a Mr. Spock and something called Wookies. The space ship lands on various planets, has adventures and returns with a message of humanism and hope. Oh, because Spock is a Vulcan, I guess Vulcanism too. Second is Friends, a show that aired between three and 30 seasons and was set in a coffee shop with four very attractive friends who slept with each other, and a monkey who was celibate. It may have had guest stars playing parents. I assume the parents slept with each other as well, but don’t know if they brought along guest mammals. Third, The Wire, always described as “gritty” and “realistic.” This program may have been set in Baltimore, may have involved people being bugged and likely showed Peckinpaughish slow-motion bleeding, hence its realistic grittiness.

Among the other science fiction/fantasy programs I’m ignorant of are Lost, which involved an island and plot points that drove people crazy, Twin Peaks, which involved someone named Laura and plot points that drove people crazy and The X-Files, which involved aliens and plot points that drove people crazy. Someone named Buffy had it in for Vampires and The Walking Dead has zombies, although I’m not sure whether they are heroes or villains.

Situation comedies have always struck me as one liners strung together at a certain frenetic pace, sort of a Henny Youngman/Rodney Dangerfield/Don Rickles/Joan Rivers chowder. A dip into my sea of non-watching here are Will and Grace, which was brave and groundbreaking, although I don’t know why, The King of Queens and Everyone Loves Raymond, which has the surrealistic ability to seem like the same show although I’m not sure what it is, The West Wing, which I imagine has slightly more political jokes and slightly fewer sex jokes and 30 Rock, which is different from 3rd Rock from the Sun only because I saw John Lithgow play Willy Loman once.

I’ve never watched any of the popular crime/law/medical shows. While in real life, these categories are distinct, in my mind the shows here feature attractive young people either standing in court or standing beside a hospital bed. Hence, no NCIS, Law and Order, LA Law, ER, Hill Street Blues or Grey’s Anatomy, although I hope on all of the bad guys get caught and the sick get healthy (unless they’re bad guys). In my defense, I have seen Perry Mason and Marcus Welby, not that that’s much of a defense.

I did watch a season-and-a-half of American Idol with my daughters when they were little, but my reality show obliviousness is also vast. The Apprentice? Nope, although I believe its host went on to other things. The Bachelor? No—did he have to get married at the end of each season, and was it the same man year after year? Cooking competitions? Nope. Other categories? Nada, zilch, nothing.

As I said earlier, I don’t seek absolution or forgiveness, just understanding. I’ll stare blankly at you when you make reference to “that Big Bang Theory episode where they made a lot of sex jokes”; you look at me uncomprehendingly when I refer to Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” Then we can go eat pie.

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