It started early yesterday morning on my Twitter feed, countless references to the upcoming episode of Breaking Bad scheduled to premiere on AMC later in the evening. They continued throughout the day, then intensified during the airing of the show and afterwards, with nearly everyone (save a few outliers) in unanimous agreement that it was pretty much the greatest thing ever in the history of everything.
My tone likely gives away the fact that I’m not a watcher of the show. The fact is, over the last couple of decades I’ve kind of fallen out of the habit of watching TV altogether, other than sports or news. Or, when Vera’s on the couch next to me, various programs about buying or renovating houses on HGTV.
I can’t even remember the last non-sitcom I made it a point to watch regularly. The old Barry Levinson-produced Homicide: Life on the Street from the 1990s springs to mind as a possible candidate. I seem to remember watching almost all of that first season of Survivor back in 2000, but didn’t continue with it after that and never got into any of the myriad other “reality” shows that have come to dominate since. I always preferred less intense comedies, although even there I never did follow too many, and even fewer today. I’ll burn a half-hour with Family Guy or old eps of Seinfeld or Cheers when they run, but that’s about it.
For me watching TV remains a non-immersive activity. I never made the transition over to the sort of “binge watching” of TV series that has become the most popular means by which viewers now tend to consume TV shows. We don’t even have DVR, so when we do turn on the tube we’re stuck watching whatever happens to be on at the time (and it has never seemed a burden). We do have a VCR, actually, still hooked up and ready to tape programs, if desired, although we almost never do.
That said, this weekend I did in fact tape and watch that CNN Films presentation Our Nixon over the weekend, which was kind of intriguing in the way it was driven by Tricky Dick’s supporting cast (Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Dwight Chapin) and the home movies each had taken during their years working for him. So it isn’t like I avoided TV altogether. In fact, I even sent a tweet yesterday about the documentary, commending the choice of Kirsty MacColl’s transporting “They Don’t Know” to accompany the opening credits.
Like everyone else seemed to be doing for much of the rest of the day, I wanted to share with others something about what I was watching on television, I guess in part to see if anyone else was watching, too.
All wanted to communicate to their followers that they were watching the show, with some going further to praise it within Twitter’s familiar constraints, the character limit presenting an obvious obstacle to more in-depth evaluations or analyses. All were further restricted as well by the need not to speak directly about the episode’s plot or be detailed enough to introduce any “spoilers” for other potential viewers.
We’re all now well accustomed to the “Spoiler Alert” disclaimer borne from the new way of consuming cultural products like television shows, movies, video games, sports, and other varieties of entertainment. Since everything is more or less “on demand” -- aside from those rare instances when everyone is made to wait for a particular time before first being able to see an episode of their favorite show -- the collective experience of, say, a new show is accompanied by a lot of tiptoeing and whispering as individuals strive to avoid being too detailed about what it is they are experiencing.
Eventually time passes and people begin to share thoughts and responses more openly with one another, but during that earlier moment in the life of the cultural product, the community’s response to it is marked by a couple of curious traits -- namely, that everyone seems to be talking about it while no one is actually saying anything specific about it.
I suspect the catching up that happens later is also full of problems in communication, with the different methods of viewing and varying degrees of attention given to the show introducing various gaps when it comes to sharing ideas about it afterwards with others. Like a poker hand which every player at the table experiences from a different point of view, so, too, do these seemingly “shared” moments get fragmented into all sorts of experiences that are related but not identical.
One of those I follow on Twitter who was not tweeting about Breaking Bad last night was the fiction writer Joyce Carol Oates. She’s an interesting follow, full of opinions and insights and seemingly quite comfortable with delivering pithy, maxim-like thoughts about culture, politics, literature, or anything else. I’m convinced some Ph.D. student has already come up with a dissertation topic focusing primarily on her tweets and using them as a lens through which to study her novels and stories.
Anyhow, about a week ago Oates offered an observation that in part covers all of these online interactions passing through our consciousness such as occur on Twitter:
All of those tweets from yesterday certainly seemed alike, especially to this non-Breaking Bad viewer. But like I say, that was largely due to the fact that while everyone wanted to talk about the same thing, everyone couldn’t talk about it, too. Not really.
I guess again watching those tweets go by was sort of like watching others play a poker game. Everyone looked pretty much the same and seemed to be doing pretty much the same sort of thing. And no one could really tell me what they were experiencing as it happened, either, because to do so would ruin the game.