December 13th, 2009
[This is Part One in a six-part series chronicling the television shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]
Memory is inherently selective, and yet we have almost no control over the selection process. We’d love to be able to, say, remember incredibly important facts or theories for the sake of writing exams as opposed to having a steel trap when it comes to song lyrics, and random details about family trips are useless if you can’t remember the names of your second cousins, but it just isn’t possible. We want to be able to control memory, to think we can choose what we remember, but in reality it’s entirely out of our hands.
So I have to wonder what it means that before 2001, I don’t remember watching television.
This is not to suggest I was entirely ambivalent towards the medium, as I weekly sat down to watch The Simpsons and surely watched an occasional episode of the big shows of the 90s (or whatever was on TBS in syndication when I got home from school each day). However, there was no sense that The Simpsons were more than an anomaly, and more importantly there was no show I followed religiously. My television tastes were devoid of plot and substance, a fact which didn’t bother me at the time but now makes me wonder what I was missing. Of course, I was 14 when this decade began, so missing out on some shows that started when I was a pre-teen isn’t exactly the world’s greatest crime. However, that this medium, which has become so important in my life, was at one point unmemorable seems like some sort of cosmic mistake. But in the end memory’s selection process captures those things which felt like they had an important influence on some part of your life, and for me that simply did not happen with television…before 2001.
However, it did happen afterwards, signalling a shift in both how my memory operates and how I watch and write about television. I want to focus on the first three shows of the decade that I have distinct memories of watching, and in particular on how well those initial memories have survived the following years (which were not, in fact, entirely kind to these particular series). And while I may have turned on these series to varying degrees as they became inconsistent or went in unsatisfying directions, no amount of criticism can wipe away the memories of watching them for the first time – memories that might not exist before 2001, but most certainly exist for the years which follow.
While the year 2000 may have seen a few television interests pop up here and there, my television memory seems to begin in November 2001. I remember getting a phone call from my brother Ryan, away at university, about how the entire family absolutely needed to catch the Friday rerun of a new show on FOX called 24. My only relationship with the show was the controversy surrounding its opening sequence in the wake of Sept. 11, so I went into the show with almost no expectations.
For the decade as a whole, 24 helped usher in a new era of serialized television, shows which not only reward the viewer for watching every episode but punish them for not being there every week by more than implying the sense of “time missed.” Yes, eventually, the show faded as its premise lost its urgency and we realized that missing a few hours of boring filler as we wait for the next exciting extraction or torture sequences isn’t the end of the world, but 24 was a foundation on which many other important shows in the decade (whether something successful like Lost, or something unsuccessful like Prison Break) would build something new.
For me personally, 24 was the first show that I can say I followed religiously, analyzing the plot and trying to figure out what was going to happen next. And while its fall from grace was unfortunate for the show itself, it was also one of the first shows that I became critical of. As 24’s quality fell, my critical faculties rose to the occasion, and the promise of its first season became a touchstone by which all future seasons would be compared. It’s somewhat unfortunate (one could say even tragic) that the same critical perspective that 24 helped construct would turn against it so vehemently on message boards and eventually here at Cultural Learnings, but it demonstrates how much the series (even in its failings) helped construct my experience with television over the past decade. And despite all of this, I still remember that first season with a nostalgic fondness that forgives the ridiculous amnesia plot, and that values that first viewing to the point of being willing to consider returning to the show in its eighth season.
It’s amazing the degree to which memories, even those in the middle of a series, can stick with you far more than an appreciation of the show in and of itself. Earlier that fall, I know I started watching J.J. Abrams’ Alias (and that I had seen at least some of Felicity before that point), but my memory of watching the first season live is completely absent. I know now, having revisited those episodes, that this makes no sense: how did I not remember the brilliant performances from Jennifer Garner, Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin, or the elaborate mythology that (although eventually going off the rails) added an element of history to a show with a very complicated present. However, despite all of this, my memory of Alias starts, in fact, halfway through its second season. Although ABC was airing the Superbowl in the United States, and airing Alias’s Season Two stunner “Phase One” behind it, Canadian simulcaster CTV wasn’t airing the Superbowl and chose to air Alias early in the evening on the East Coast. And so it was that I found myself sitting in front of a tiny television watching one of the biggest game-changing hours of television of the decade four hours before the rest of North America.
It was the first time I remember my jaw literally dropping watching a television program, and the most painful thing about it was that I had no one to talk to: most of the world hadn’t seen the episode yet, and even my parents had been busy that evening and were planning to catch it on tape. I didn’t entirely know what to do with myself, and am fairly certain I resorted to seeing if there was anyone on the Television Without Pity boards who watched that airing and was willing to discuss it in spoiler tags before the rest of the world caught its brilliance. It was the first time I could remember a television show taking that much of an exciting left turn (the end of 24’s first season was more shocking than exciting), and it captured the sort of moment of confusion and uncertainty that keeps a serialized medium like television so exciting. Yes, Alias too fell into the same trap as 24 (as later seasons became less interesting and woke the sleeping giant that was my early critical perspective on television), but I will never forget that moment and how it crystallized what the first two seasons accomplished, and generated enough good will for my to slog my way through some awfully rough patches in the three seasons that followed.
And yet, there are some shows about which I have no specific memory, and yet nonetheless developed into something incredibly important. There doesn’t need to be a single moment of revelation or discovery for a show to become important or meaningful, and in some cases the lack of such a moment is reflective of the ease with which we as viewers slip into a particular universe. I don’t have a particular memory of my experience with The WB’s Gilmore Girls, a fact which is less surprising than one would think. While you could argue it was early shame over watching a show for which I was clearly not part of the target audience (not that I understood what being a target audience meant, particularly), I think it is far more simple. I don’t remember particular episodes blowing me away, and I don’t remember the moment I first met Lorelai, Rory, Emily, Richard, Paris and everyone else. However, when I went through my Complete Series DVDs, I recognized almost everything I had seen in season one, which proves either that my memory is really lousy or more intriguingly, and more likely, that my memory has been clouded by just how well drawn this universe was and I’ve filled in some gaps on my own.
Gilmore Girls is the first show I watched where the memories I have are less about my experience watching the show (like that brief period where The Simpsons was banned in the house, etc.) and more about the show itself, about the wacky town of Stars Hollow and the quick-witted people (in particular Lauren Graham’s stunning comic and dramatic work as Lorelai) who inhabited it. Yes, it was the first show to make me really pay attention to writing credits (as TWoP made the game of “Can you guess if it’s a Daniel Palladino?” episode into a weekly exercise), but more importantly it was the first show of the decade where I really felt like it created a world I wanted to just stop by and visit, a world I dropped into with such ease that I don’t even remember when I arrived. When the show dared to take characters too far or introduce elements which seemed disruptive to its charm, I was frustrated because it took me out of that world, and like with both Alias and 24 it was almost disappointing to see the show transform from a show I could easily disconnect from its fictional trappings to a show that in its trouble sixth and seventh seasons was creatively set adrift due to behind the scenes dealings.
But part of the ups and downs of having watched television over an entire decade is that every show is bound to change, just as you are bound to change with it. These were the shows I watched before I really watched television, and while at times it’s hard to know whether nostalgia (like always conveniently and ironically forgetting about the Amnesia story) or distance (like not realizing how unique Amy Sherman-Palladino’s voice was when it first debuted) play a role in how I situate them within any sort of Top 10, or Top 15, or some other list process. However, what I do know is that when I watch a show like Lost for the first time, or when The Middleman blows me away with its witty repartee, or when any show references a certain predatory feline, I turn back to these shows and the way in which they first introduced me to key elements of television in the decade that I would come to look for (and, later in their runs, look out for).
And even if two of them are off the air and one of them has lost my interest, and even though only one of them would make my theoretical Top 20 list, they remain an integral beginning to my experience with television over the past decade, memories that stuck with me in a way that I could not have expected when this decade began.
Your Turn: What are some of your “memories” of television in the past decade, in particular those moments or episodes of particular shows that altered your perspective on a character, a series, or even the medium as a whole?
16 responses to “Television, the Aughts & I – Part One – “Beginnings””
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I’m 23, so in 2000 I was in middle school. I watched 7th Heaven regularly. But the moment I became addicted was when I watched the first episode of Alias. I remember making a point to watch it every Sunday night. It changed my life. Hot girl? yup. Spy’s? yup. Excitement? yup. I fell in love with it, and all of TV. I didn’t watch Lost until season 3, but that show is why I watch TV.
I think the first really firm television memory I have for this decade was the morning after the penultimate episode of West Wing’s fourth season where the little sect of us that were religious followers of the show (all three of us plus a few teachers) were just completely slackjawed at that last sequence. Then the next week when Sorkin threw that last curveball/FU to the network and we all said some variation of ‘man, what a dick move’.
Either that or my literally having to pick my jaw up off the floor after The Shield’s pilot (thank god for Global not editing it down when they re-broadcast it, eh?) I think that was the first time a pilot made a show essential viewing in our household at any time.
It’s funny that you mention Alias though. Like you, I can’t recall much of that first season (though I do recall how amazing I found Victor Garber and Ron Rifkin in their respective roles, and now I watch anything with Victor Garber), I just remember enjoying it. I know as the series progressed, a game started in our house to see how long it would take for the (awesome) title sequence to start. I think the longest was 20 minutes.
But Alias wasn’t really the television turning point for me. My first firm grasp on television, from the start of the decade, that I can remember watching and paying attention to it, was the 2000 American Presidential election results. I stayed up up until 1 or 2 in the morning glued to CNN and the broadcast networks, watching them debate and dither on Florida and recounting.
I know that isn’t a total answer to your question, which specifies the engagement of episode-format programming, but the election made me much more aware of that the box in my house, previously just used for sitcoms and Cartoon Network, had something more to offer, and I started paying more attention to it.
I’m in pretty much the same boat as you. I did not start watching TV regularly or with any real sense of worth until roughly 03′ or early 04′. I was introduced to Buffy by a good friend of mine. Until then I had scoffed at it thinking it was some show for tween girls and not a 16 year old guy. Thankfully I trusted this friend and watched it. All seven seasons of Buffy gave me a great appreciation for Joss which in turn opened me up to Angel and Firefly. I remember that I had burned through Angel on DVD (seasons 1-4) while I was catching the weekly eps from season 5. I watched the Finale “Not Fade Away” and cried like a little girl. I think that is when it clicked to me that watching TV was not just about how gross Beavis and Butthead were or how funny Cartman was. Since I missed a lot of great shows I have tried to go back and catch up. I saw Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, Veronica Mars, Alias, and numerous other shows via word of mouth after they aired. I’m happy to say that since opening up to TV I’ve been able to get in on the ground floor of shows like How I Met Your Mother, Dexter, and Sons of Anarchy and share them with friends. Overall TV has been a great medium for me and one that I cant see myself functioning without in the next decade.
The Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body” definitely permanently altered my concept of what television was capable of. I think it still remains one of the most personal things I’ve ever seen a creator put onscreen. There’s just so much raw emotion there that no matter how many times I watch it, it still brings me to tears.
That is truly a great episode. All of my close friends know that if they see me watching “The Body” they need to leave me alone for a few hours. I watch it a lot when I’ve had a really bad day. It helps me work through whatever is going on.
I’m right there with you on 24. It was the first TV show that became appointment TV for me, where I would turn down the lights, crank up the volume and tell everyone to shut up. Though my love for it dwindled with every new season (except maybe for 5, where it briefly returned), that first season stands as the moment when I became officially a TV fanatic. Oddly enough, the next show after 24 I sought ought and loved was also Alias. Looking back, I also credit those two shows as kickstarting my love for the medium.
Looking forward to reading the rest of your series.
nice essay, Myles. I’ve always watched TV but I think a seminal moment for me this decade was seeing The Wire’s fourth episode, Old Cases, and realising just how rewarding the show was going to be, how the complex and almost impenetrable groundwork laid by the previous episodes was building into something special. It was the first time I thought, Thank you, I *appreciate* this, towards a show’s creator, and it gave me a different imagination of television, if that makes sense.
Looking back I’d have to say that the pilot of Twin Peaks was when my love affair with TV started. I had never seen anything like it. The idea that a show could have a season-long arc was completely foreign to me, and hooked me immediately. More recently I would have to mention the Season 1 opener of BSG “33”. I watched the mini-series and wasn’t hooked. ”
33″ though made BSG appointment watching for me. In this day and age of DVR, where commercials can be avoided, that was an accomplishment. And it only got better.
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I love that you’ve started this series of posts with 24 and Alias because I chose one over the other. I watched Alias instead of 24 because I was in college the year they both started, didn’t have a television (so I was watching TV in the dorm common room), and could only commit to watching one of them. I didn’t even watch Alias from the beginning but came in sometime during that first fall and then caught up. The show certainly fell apart towards the end but I feel like those first two seasons get short shrift in a lot of the decade recaps. Like you, I think “Phase One” was one of the gutsiest and breathtaking hours of television I’ve seen. I remember waiting for what I thought was a dream sequence to end and then realizing at the end of the hour that they’d really just demolished the entire framework of the show. Can’t wait to read the other posts.
Lost Season 1 Episode 4 “Walkabout”. I’d read about the show before it aired and the whole family had gathered round for the Pilot which we all enjoyed, but it was the first Locke-centric episode that was burned into my memory. With that I’m able to forgive the show any sins it may have been guilty of over its past 5 seasons.
The biggest thing I recall about the first season of “Alias” was conversations I’d have with a friend of mine who was also caught up in the first season with me.
We’d have the discussion every week of how “Alias” packed more into one episode than most shows did in an entire season (back then Syd either loved or hated her Dad and that could change within the episode itself) and that at some point the frantic pace of the storytelling would catch up to the show. That point was the post-Super Bowl episode of season two, which is where the show really took a downturn from which it never really recovered. Or maybe I was just in it for different things than the rest of the audience since I wasn’t as concerned about the Syd and Vaughn relationship as much as Syd’s desire to have a life outside of her role as a spy and watching the conflict this created in the early seasons.
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