The Joys of Rising From the Cultural Dead
Are HBO shows best experienced on DVD?
HBO's recent evolution from a place where you could watch Strange Brew 12 times a day into a gushing fountainhead of televisual high art has made my life complicated. Though I'm an avid watcher of Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and Deadwood, subscribing has always seemed decadent and a little beside the point: I don't want another channel, I just want the shows. This means that I live, by choice, in a permanent HBO-lag: My viewing occurs entirely on DVD, a year or two behind schedule. I've become the undisputed king of the obsolescent spoiler: While the culturally savvy are fretting over recent developments, I'm telling people about the ducks leaving Tony Soprano's pool in Season 1. But not everyone is so patient. When the final season of Six Feet aired last summer, my wife went to a friend's house to watch the episodes in real time. I stayed home, HBO-less, to watch the baby. And so, our cultural lives forked apart on parallel but asynchronous tracks: While she saw what was, by all accounts, a ripsnorter of a final season, I could only stare at the bus advertisements and wonder. I had entered the gap—the cultural dead zone between a show's on-air finale and its resurrection on DVD.
Life in the gap can be hard. Though watching a show on DVD is better in about a thousand ways than watching as it airs—you get to see an episode as many times as you want, on your own schedule, with special features—it requires the temporary sacrifice of your social currency. Six Feet was particularly tough to fall behind on: Though it was never the most subtle show, it might have been the most emotionally engaging. Its characters were realistically messy—constantly groping after some awkward species of adolescent vitality, locked into relationships teetering on the brink of murder-suicide—and it often took big risks (tortuous near-deaths, an occasional absence of likability) that inspired lots of polarized public chatter. In those eight months, I began to feel like an aesthetic amputee, haunted by phantom pains of the missing season. I had to avoid certain Web sites, avert my eyes from the paper's arts section, and walk away from potentially revelatory conversations. Inevitably, details leaked out: I heard rumors of a major character's death and some kind of mind-blowing season-ending montage. My wife and I endured awkward silences.
Back in the VHS era (1980-2004), watching a show late was either an unfortunate coping mechanism ("Oh no, the dog is vomiting in the kitchen!But Roseanne is coming on! Somebody hit 'record!' ") or an act of superfan homage ("If I'm not mistaken, friend, I believe you are thinking of Season 2, Episode 1, in which Detective Dale Cooper meets the gum-dispensing giant! Mother, fetch the tape!"). Access depended either on the crapshoot of late-night syndication or a sofa-sized video collection.
Over the past few years, however, we have witnessed the end of simultaneity: everyone lives in different cultural time zones. Retro-watching has become big business. TV on DVD (can we agree to call it "TVD"?) has boomed into a $4 billion industry. And since 2000, when the first full season TVD came out—Season 1 of The X-Files,seven years after it originally aired—the show-to-disc lag has been steadily shrinking. HBO DVDs used to trail their shows by at least two years—now they come out before the next season airs. Falling behind isn't a minority position anymore, it's a legitimate first-time viewing strategy. Thanks to TVD (along with newer technologies like DVR and on-demand cable), the first broadcast of a show has lost its old magic—around 60 percent of The Sopranos' DVD audience, for instance, doesn't subscribe to HBO. Most of my friends are still scattered, with little sense of cultural loss, throughout Six Feet's first four seasons.
But (to adapt Six Feet's ad copy),everything everyone everywhere ends—at least eventually. After eight months, my Six Feet gap finally closed: Last week, the final season reached its second-wave DVD audience. I took full advantage of the medium shift, tearing through the entire season in three days—15 times faster than its original viewers. I watched with frenzied, immersive, isolation-tank intensity, breaking free only to feed my daughter and my dog and (prompted by the show) to check that my marriage wasn't flaming out into some kind of loveless soul-draining screaming match. I lost myself for days in the world of the Fishers: the fantasy sequences and symbolic misplaced birds (sea gull on the wedding cake, bluebird at the birthday party); the relentless arguments (tiffs escalating into spats, flaps snowballing into squabbles); the streaks of light bursting through every window, like the sun is setting directly on the funeral home's front lawn (someone opens the fridge in one episode and there appears to be a supernova in place of a light bulb). I walked around in quasi-religious ecstasy, admiring the play of light on my pants legs and marveling at the sheer existence of humanity.
And then it all ended. The series-ending montage—a six-minute sequence that tied all the show's loose ends into permanent knots—basically turned me into a hysterical Victorian woman: I collapsed on the couch in a near-swoon, sobbing and imagining my own death and the deaths of everyone I have ever known. (I watched it later with the commentary track and had pretty much the same reaction; then I heard a 30-second clip of the montage's background music, Sia's "Breathe Me," and my cheeks almost inverted from the pressure of trying not to cry.) This intensity seemed medium-dependent: Six Feet is less like TV than serialized film, and it benefits more than most shows from feverish immersion. I doubt my reaction would have been quite so strong if I had diluted the drama with a week of real life between every episode. This was my reward for the wait.
A few weeks ago my wife got impatient again. Having watched The Sopranos on DVD, she wanted to see the final season in real time, so she signed us up for HBO. After watching the first few episodes, it's become clear that TVD has ruined me. I've gotten so used to the lag I can't take it straight anymore. The few conversations I've had with people about new plot twists don't come close to compensating for the frustration of having to wait a week between episodes. It's one thing to watch a show late—it's unbearable to watch it too soon.
Sam Anderson is a writer living in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Still from Six Feet Under by Doug Hyun/HBO.