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?