Giving someone a TV series on DVD is like giving them a life sentence.
Recently, my father-in-law broke his leg when his golfing buddy ran him over with their golf cart. Don't shed too many tears. These things happen as one ages: Eyes dim, hearing fades, reactions slow, and eventually someone runs someone else over. If you have any tears, save them for the sad scene I witnessed when I visited him during his convalescence.
There he was, slumped on the sofa like a dead body in a vacant lot, looking like a man who already saw the vultures circling. I asked him if he was in pain and he moaned, raising one trembling finger like the Ghost of Christmas Future and pointing to the source of his distress. And there they were, stacked up on the other side of the room as menacing and oppressive as the Berlin Wall: Seasons 1, 2, and 3 of Lost, five seasons of The Wire, 16 hours of Foyle's War, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Nip/Tuck, and Prison Break. The most critically acclaimed television series of our time—now on DVD!—looming over him like grim death.
The DVD box set is the newest and most terrifying form of ritualistic abuse we inflict on one another. In the past, a sick person received unwanted hardback books, but these days when someone is laid up with an illness, they are buried beneath an avalanche of DVD box sets containing hundreds of hours of television series.
"You must watch this," devotees say. "You're really going to love it." With the unspoken threat being: "And if you don't, you are an idiot. I will still acknowledge you in public, but in my heart I will know that you are an anti-intellectual vulgarian."
We've been told that we're living in a new golden age of television, and suddenly we're expected not only to watch but to read essays, think about, and discuss one-hour nighttime dramas like Desperate Housewives and Dollhouse. Watching these shows is like joining the Masons, requiring the memorization of arcane trivia, the parsing of cryptic plot twists, and near-fanatical loyalty. We can't just watch these shows—we must be devoted to them in the same way that John Hinckley was devoted to Jodie Foster. *
But the DVD boxed set is the worst way to worship. For committed fans, they're easy-to-use video scrapbooks that let you revisit your favorite scenes of Jeremy Piven walking quickly and cursing on Entourage. As a gateway drug to initiate virgin viewers, all box sets do is proclaim that the emperor has no clothes.
Television episodes were never meant to be viewed in rapid fire order. Mad Men often ends with its lead character, Don Draper, stranded impotently in the gloomy, underlit front hallway of his suburban home. Viewed once a week, this is a weighty image of existential angst. Viewed three or four times in a row, you want to scream, "Buy some light bulbs!" Curb Your Enthusiasmplotlines are actually all the same plotline, which you'd never have guessed until you watched six episodes straight. And four episodes back-to-back of the lachrymose Battlestar Galacticawill convince you that the show should have been re-titled Crybabies in Space.
Television should be a glorious time waster, but being given three seasons of Lost on DVD is like being given a prison sentence. You slog through the first season, and not only is the hefty second season waiting around the corner, but it has brought its friends: Seasons 3, 4, and 5. Boxed sets have transformed television from light entertainment into homework.
There are treasures to be found, to be sure, and DVD is a fine way to preserve great television for future generations, but I would suggest that we take a hard look in the mirror and ask: Is the arrival of Jake and the Fat Manon DVD a sign that perhaps we've overpreserved? Isn't a 42-disc set of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Womantaking things just a bit too far? The DVD industry, like Dr. Frankenstein, has the power to bring the dead back to life, but we should think twice before meddling with the forces of nature.
When I visited my father-in-law after he had recovered, I asked him if he had ever watched any of those DVD boxed sets. "I hid them in the closet," he said. "And watched golf." As he spoke I noticed that he had color in his cheeks, that his eyes were clearer, his hair more luxurious, and his teeth gleaming and strong.
I smiled inwardly. Here was a man who had been plunged into the valley of the shadow, been tempted by a host of DVD boxed sets, resisted their grim ministrations, and come out the better for it. Perhaps, then, there is a value to these things, after all. Boxed sets of Rescue Meand Dextermight not actually be designed for entertainment but may instead be crucibles that test our souls with fire, and like escapees from the gulag we emerge from the inferno with our wills forged into steel. Some of us, however, will not survive the boxed-set era—and for those who succumb there is a small consolation in the fact that their coffins can easily be constructed from Seasons 1 through 11 of ER. And if they're extra-tall individuals, Season 12 will be out in January.
Correction, Dec. 1, 2009: This article originally misspelled Jodie Foster's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival and he writes about pop culture on his blog.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.