Love and Television, aka First World Problems
My husband and I have been together for over 11 years. And except for one year back in 2001, when we thought we’d “experiment” with not having cable (a terrible, failed experiment, by the way), we have also been watching television together for 10 years. Generally, if a couple is compatible with each other — sharing similar views on politics, childrearing, home decor, and food — then their tastes in television will also be compatible. Let’s call this our “TV relationship.” Our TV relationship has remained healthy and thriving for the last decade since we share key viewing preferences: we will watch any HBO “original series” at least once and will likely keep watching it, even after we determine that it is awful (John from Cincinatti, I’m talking to you); we will watch every single season of Survivor, ratings be damned; we will watch any series featuring characters who regularly get shot, beheaded, scalped, or mauled (but not eaten); we will watch any MTV reality show that makes us feel better about who we are and the life decisions we have made (i.e., every MTV reality show); we will not watch any comedies containing laugh tracks (bye bye, Whitney). I should also point out that TV watching takes place during a specific time-frame in my house: a. after the children are asleep and b. when all other work has been completed. So we generally watch TV between 9 pm and 11 pm. Likewise, there is just one DVR in our house, so if TV is being watched in my house, my husband and I are probably watching it together.
A few years ago, there was a definitive rift in our TV relationship, precipitated by the premiere of a new “cycle” (not season, Tyra doesn’t like seasons) of America’s Next Top Model. My husband and I love gamedocs (Survivor, Top Chef, So You Think You Can Dance), and this one delivered the works: competition, delusional bulimics, and most importantly, Tyra Banks. “Top Model comes on tonight!” I called from the den. These sort of TV-based announcements are like foreplay in my house. In fact, my husband and I send each other links to reviews/publicity about new TV shows in the same way that other couples might send each other sexually suggestive e-mails. The subject line is “Oh baby” but the e-mail itself reads “We should watch this, right?” But when I announced the new cycle of America’s Next Top Model, my husband was not very excited:
Him: I think I’m done.
Me: What do you mean?
Him: I think I’m done watching America’s Next Top Model.
Me: [incredulous] You mean you’re just … not going to watch it anymore?
Him: You can watch it without me.
So I did watch America’s Next Top Model without him. Alone. But it just wasn’t the same. Every time Tyra told some ingenue to “smile with your eyes” (later becoming the portmanteau, “smize”), there was no one on the couch next to me with whom I could commiserate over the stupidity of asking someone to smile with a part of the body that cannot smile. And every time a contestant explained “I’m not here to make friends!” there was no one on the couch next to me with whom I could say “That’s the 10th time someone has said that this season!” I made it through that cycle of America’s Next Top Model, but it was to be my last. The show just wasn’t as much fun to watch without my husband around.
After that first blow to our TV relationship, it became easier for one of us to drop out of a show. When this happens, it is customary for desperate campaigning to ensue, with one partner attempting to convince the other that a terrible mistake has been made. The dropped show is the “BEST SHOW ON TV!” or the dropped show has finally “hit its stride!” “Don’t you want to come back and start watching it again?” For example, when I gave up on the 90210 reboot after just three episodes (I missed the original cast too much), my husband, an ardent fan of all teen melodrama, would make casual comments like “It’s a shame you stopped watching 90210 because this is the best season yet.” Or I’ll tell my husband, “There was a scene in Parenthood last week that was an exact replica of the conversation we’re having right now. Isn’t that funny?” And my husband, aware of what I’m doing, will reply, “Yeah, I’m not going to watch that show again.”
Of course there are certain shows that I watch, knowing full well that my husband will never watch them with me (Project Runway) and there are shows my husband watches that he knows I will never ever watch with him (Walking Dead). There is no attempt to convince the other person of the merits of these programs. I will not watch a show containing zombies and my husband will not watch a show in which people discuss asymmetrical hems and “taste levels.” These are “deal breakers.”
Yes, differences in TV preferences are a part of any couple’s life. They cannot be avoided. But there are ways to keep your TV relationship as stable and functional as possible. This is important because, as the old saying goes, the family that gazes together, stay-zes together. To that end, here are some tips for promoting the longterm health of your TV relationship:
1. Don’t Box Him/Her Out
I enjoy HBO’s How to Make it in America. It’s not my favorite show, but I like it’s focus on fashion and hipsters, as well as it’s wicked awesome opening credit sequence, which is worthy of it’s own blog post. But my husband is lukewarm about the series; he only watches it because I do. Just after Season 2 premiered a few weeks ago my husband went out of town. 2 episodes of How to Make it in America sat on the DVR, beckoning, “Watch me, Amanda. Your husband doesn’t even like this show. He won’t care….” And so I did. The next week, I watched another episode without him, noticing that we had acquired 3 in our DVR queue (I hate an unwieldy DVR queue). When I encouraged my husband to catch up on the series, he was dismayed. “You’re boxing me out,” he whined. It was true. What motivation did he have for watching a series he only mildly liked on his own? Conclusion: if one partner is lukewarm on a series, make sure you watch it together. Otherwise, you will be watching it alone forever and always.
2. Give it a Chance
Sometimes when I get those not-sexy-unless-you-love-TV e-mails from my husband, in which he attempts to seduce me into watching a new series, I think “Ugh, this looks terrible.” I feel like the authority on these matters since it is I who has the PhD in visual media. What does the software programmer know? I’m the expert here! But there is something to be said for allowing your significant other to select some programming, even if you are sure that the show is going to be horrible. Case in point: my husband decided to put Whitney in our DVR queue (Whitney for crying out loud!!!). I was resistant, but ultimately agreed to watch the series premiere. The show was not nearly as awful as I thought it would be, but it had a laugh track, and that is a deal breaker. So even though I am no longer watching Whitney with my husband, I did try it. And that’s all you can expect in your TV relationship. Conclusion: take your partner’s preferences into account and give all new programs a chance.
3. Watch it Anyway
Another key to harmony in your TV relationship is something you are probably already doing, and that is “compromise.” Longterm relationships are all about compromises. Especially when those relationships involve the watching of TV. Earlier in this post I mentioned that my husband and I always watch Survivor — in fact, my husband and I have watched every single season of Survivor together, except for seasons 1 and 2 (which predate our moving into together in 2001). So in a way, Survivor is most representative of our TV relationship. But the thing is, I have lost some of my love for Survivor over the last few years. I still believe that it is the greatest game show of all time, but I started watching it at a time when reality TV was far more compelling than scripted television. But right now TV is just so good that I would prefer to spend the limited amount of time I have for TV viewing on something else. But I don’t.Why? Because Survivor is what my husband and I watch together. Some couples have a vacation spot or a restaurant or a song that symbolizes their relationship. My husband and I are united by Jeff Probst and “The tribe has spoken.” So I will continue to watch Survivor even though I’d rather be watching Parenthood, because only one of those shows includes my husband on the couch. And that makes TV viewing 65% more enjoyable (these are hard scientific numbers).
But now I’m curious about your own experiences with watching TV with your partner (current or former). For those of you in long term relationships, what hardships have you faced in your TV relationships? Are there shows your partner loves and that you despise? Do you have more than one DVR in your house?
I’m also curious about TV relationships between non-romantic couples. For instance, do you regularly watch TV with a roommate, sibling, or parent? If so, how do you keep that relationship stable?
Please share below…
Notes on Parenthood & PARENTHOOD
When my first pet human was born, back in the summer of 2006, I was still a grad student and had no maternity leave. After two months I went back to teaching/dissertating/job searching and it was pretty tough to do it all, let alone do it all well. My daughter was only with a caretaker part-time, but I felt like I was “working” all the time: stealing a spare hour here, a few minutes there, typing up job letters while I nursed her.
Therefore, when I realized that my second child would arrive in mid-January of this year, giving me an entire semester of maternity leave, plus the summer, I was overjoyed. My daughter goes to a Montessori preschool in the mornings and then on to an afternoon daycare, so I decided to pull her out of the latter. I knew that I might never again have such a lengthy period of time to spend with my children, and visions of afternoons in the park and elaborate crafts projects danced before my eyes. And when both children napped (because of course they would do this in tandem), I would work on my book revisions and even write blog posts. Yes, I was going to be an awesome (and intellectually productive) stay at home Mom.
But when pet human # 2 arrived on January 13th of this year, these illusions were immediately shattered. As it turns out, #2 is not a great sleeper. And after a morning consumed with diaper changes, feedings, laundry folding and food preparation, #1 would arrive home demanding “Where’s my lunch!” and “What are we doing today?” So how bad am I at this stay at home Mom thing? One month into it my daughter asked me “Mommy, why don’t I go to daycare anymore?” and I replied “Because Mommy isn’t working right now and wants to spend more time with you. Isn’t it fun to be home with Mommy?” Her reply, after mulling it over was characteristically honest. “No” she told me. I explained to her that she would return to afternoon daycare in “the fall” and since then she has asked, multiple times, “When will it be The Fall?” Ouch.
This entitre experience has made me reevaluate my ideas about what my children need from me and what I need from them. Is being home with an overtired, constantly breastfeeding mother necessarily better for my daughter than being with kids her own age, who don’t mind when she picks her nose or wants to play the same game over and over an over? Is this “quality time” really quality for her?
Why am I sharing this personal story on a blog devoted to film, television and media studies? Because in the midst of my stay at home Mom crisis, NBC premiered Parenthood, a loose adaptation of the 1989 Ron Howard film of the same name, which chronicles the lives of the Braverman family. I will admit that after watching the pilot I was initially left feeling unimpressed. First, Dax Shepard, who plays “free spirit,” Crosby, is miscast in my opinion (and I still can’t get over the fact that he is engaged to Kristen Bell. Really, Kristen Bell? REALLY?).
Second, I find it highly implausible that the Braverman clan — busy as they with careers and children — are able to get together for breakfast, brunch, dinner, late night BBQs, little league games, preschool concerts, and school fundraising events on what seems like a daily basis. My God people, you’ve lived in Berkeley your entire lives, haven’t you made any other friends besides your siblings and parents? Finally, the conclusion to the pilot, in which little, autistic Max Braverman (Max Burkholder), decides that yes! he WILL play in his little league game after all, prompting the entire family to rush out to the field, cheering and full of pep, to watch, was the ultimate in cornball.
But the show has been winning me over with its storyline involving Julia Braverman-Graham (Erika Christensen), her husband, Joel (Sam Jaeger), and young daughter, Sydney (Savannah Paige Rae). Some bloggers I know, find Julia’s story to be both dated and somewhat unbelievable. Myles McNutt wrote:
“I don’t quite understand why Julia is just now realizing that her daughter is starting to drift away, and Christensen’s performance (while good) seems to be making the character more stubborn and bullish than sympathetic.”
I don’t think it’s that Julia is just discovering that her relationship with her daughter is less than ideal; in the pilot Julia remarks, in an only slightly joking tone, that perhaps she needs to lower her expectations for her relationship with Syndey, “She will be like…a relative of mine!” Though Julia’s statement is an exaggeration — her daughter seems to really love her — it is clear that the child prefers her father. And is that really so awful? If it were the other way around would it even warrant a storyline on the show? No, I don’t think Julia feels all that guilty for loving her job and being proud of her work — and she shouldn’t. Her husband is a wonderful, engaged, stay at home Dad so Sydney is not lacking in parental attention.
Instead, I think these first few episodes have brought to light Julia’s realization that other parents might disapprove of her choice to work — such as “wonder mom” Raquel (Erinn Hayes)– and that perhaps her husband might (though the show has not made this entirely clear yet) prefer a wife who bakes cookies, takes their daughter to swim lessons, and has a tacky tattoo over her rear end (something I’ve always referred to as a “tramp stamp,” but I digress). It is clear that Raquel does indeed judge Julia, albeit in a passive aggressive fashion, but I like that the writers have depict Julia as being judgmental of Raquel as well. This was perfectly encapsulated at Sydney’s school fundraiser’s auction, when Julia and Raquel engage in a bidding war over a parking space. The war culminates with Julia exclaiming (while still on microphone) “She doesn’t even work!” It was a funny, squirm-worthy moment.
I appreciate Parenthood‘s depiction of these much-maligned “Mommy Wars” primarily because so many women want argue that the division between working mothers and stay at home mothers doesn’t exist. But it does. It shouldn’t, but it does. Depicting both sides of this “war” — how judging a mother for the choices she makes is counterproductive and painful for all involved, is an important task for this series since it is a reality of modern mothering.
As a working mother who is trying her hand (albeit temporarily) at being a stay at home Mom, I’ve learned two important lessons: 1. It is just as difficult, exhausting and stressful to stay home with your children as it is to work full-time, and 2. Some women serve their families best by staying home with their kids while others serve their families better by working. I think Parenthood is handling this very touchy issue well. The viewer wants to sympathize with Julia over the too-perfect Raquel (after all, she is taller, bustier and is definitely hitting on Joel),but then we get a scene in which the camera lingers on Raquel’s face, the day after Julia publicly ridicules her for not working, to reveal her feelings of hurt. These moments speak to the unreasonable expectations that mothers place on themselves, and worse, on each other, to be everything to everyone — their partners, children, employers, friends — at all times.
So maybe Parenthood isn’t that great of a show — there are weaknesses (Who is Joel as a character? Does Kristina [Monica Potter] have a personality? Dax Shepard, REALLY?) and maybe the reason I’m enjoying it so much is because it came to me at a pivotal moment in my life, when I’ve begun to reexamine my role as a mother and as worker. But isn’t that the role of good, serialized television, after all? To settle itself into your bones and make you think about your own life, about what it is and what it isn’t, from week to week? While it might be a little too precious when the image of Adam (Peter Krause) gazing lovingly at his sleeping son is intercut with an image of Crosby watching the sleeping Jabbar (Tyree Brown), we nevertheless get the feeling that Crosby is slowly learning the small pleasures of parenthood. Indeed, during that very scene I couldn’t help but look down at my own newborn son, who was sleeping on my lap, and feel the same surge of pleasure these fictional characters were feeling.