I must not be the only one who dreads that turn around the table at a dinner party when someone fills a minor silence with the go-to question of our time. “Have any of you been watching Walking Dead?” he’ll ask, unless it’s, “Have any of you been watching Downton Abbey?” or, have any of you been watching any other show that people like to like? If you take the bait—and someone always does—the night soon descends into palaver. No more news about your friends, no more funny anecdotes or gossip, no more open, honest sharing of the soul. Once you and your friends have started down the track of TV talk, there’s rarely any change of course, except to shift the target of communal praise from one amazing show to another, even more amazing one. “Yeah, but have you been watching Homeland?” “Yes, oh my God, SO GOOD.”
I hate to state the obvious, but this conversation isn’t good at all. It’s weird and sad and dull. You’d think we’d have a lot to say about TV in this golden age of shows produced to look and feel like movies, with multi-season story arcs, problematic heroes, and sneak-attack engagements with important issues of our time. You’d think all that quality onscreen would lead to vibrant repartee, a matching golden age of dinner-party banter. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Even coming off the season that brought us Rustin Cohle and Maura Pfefferman—and now, even in this age of Empire—real-life talk about TV mostly is a bore.
Let me stipulate that many of the shows we talk about are, in fact, amazing. So, too, is the virtuosic corps of TV critics who attest to our amazement. Their work enlightens and informs us, but that only makes the problem worse. Expert TV talk seems effortless, like anyone could do it. It tempts us into being bores. Here’s what happens at the table: A friend posits that a show is great; the rest of us agree. It’s the dinner-party version of a Facebook post, where guests take turns punching at the “like” button. This is not spelunking for a deeper truth, it’s following the path of least resistance, or retreating to a common ground. A linguist might call it phatic speech—blabbing for the sake of social bonding. I call it giving up.
Look, I know this could be my problem, not yours. I’ve heard that certain grad-school types may at times indulge in long debates about the identity politics of True Blood, or the use of Brechtian epic theater in House of Cards. But I’m pretty sure that most tête-à-têtes de TiVo don’t ever reach too far beyond a lame rehashing of the plot. This may have less to do with any one specific social group (I’d like to think that mine is pretty sharp) than with the medium itself.
As a topic for discussion, TV can be unwieldy. It demands a faith and fealty that other art forms don’t. If you really want to know a cable series, if you want to understand all its characters and themes, then you’ll have to make a major time investment—maybe 13 hours for each season, multiplied by four or five or six. This is lethal for TV talk. If someone at the table isn’t up to date—let’s imagine that she hasn’t spent some 80 hours of her life prepping for the conversation—then the rest of us must hold our tongues for fear of giving things away. That’s TV talk in its most annoying incarnation: all coquetry and no content; hour-long discussions where nothing much is said. (For some reason, we treat this tedious ritual as if it were an act of kindness.)
The fact that everyone must be up to date provides another way for TV talk to rid itself of substance. Pretend you watched the first two episodes of Transparent, and found it overcute and politically correct. It would be nice if you could share this view at dinner, if only to inject a minor note of conflict. But, alas, when your friend declares the show is perfect, you don’t have standing to object. Since you haven’t forced yourself to watch a day shift’s worth of episodes, who are you to judge? “Give it another try,” a guest might say. “You really have to get invested in the characters.” (And what if I don’t? It’s a classic TV-talk tautology.) More often you’ll be told the show starts off a little slow, but wait, things pick up mid-season. You’ll have to take that claim on faith, since, well, no spoilers! It’s the grand-jury model of persuasion: no opposing counsel, and all the evidence is sealed.
With every passing season, I’m afraid that TV talk gets more moldy and dispiriting. It was always blah to hear a friend declare his love for Homeland, but at least he was copping to a fact about himself—who he is and what he likes. Now we’re all a little older, more likely to have settled down, and these comments often come from couples: “We tried watching The Good Wife, but we just couldn’t get into it,” one half will say, speaking for a TV-watching team. “Oh, we’re totally obsessed,” another pair will say, hinting at the humdrum nights they share in silence.
I don’t mean to judge: It’s fine if you and your loved one watch TV together, and good for you if you reach a consensus on each and every show. (I understand that Netflix queues can be a source of strife for married couples.) These may be truths about the way we lead our lives, but I have to ask: Must they be so public? I don’t need to know that you’ve given up on forming separate opinions or that you fall asleep to HBO. When you tell me we like this or we like that, I think of primates grooming nits from one another’s hair.
This couple-talk only recapitulates the bigger problem, though. It asserts the we-ness of TV, the first-person plurality of taste within your social group. It builds a wall around the table; it asserts a private demographic. That’s not conversation but its opposite: If we can all agree (and no one really wants to argue), then we shouldn’t need to talk at all. Like the couples that find togetherness in Togetherness, we’re hiding in a fortress of accord.
I wouldn’t like to argue that TV talk has been degraded in the bigger sense—I’m sure it was never very good. But the growing status of TV, and the changing ways in which we watch it, have moved the conversation into a classier venue. Years ago, people didn’t aim so high: In the morning, they discussed at work what they’d watched the night before. A few big networks gave us truly shared experiences, and TV talk served as token speech, like references to football or the weather, traded for a fleeting sense of intimacy.
As the experience of television became more granular and isolating—as we learned to watch on DVDs and DVRs—TV talk ceased to function as an easy way of making conversation. It began to say too much (even as it said so little) about our backgrounds and affiliations. Bring up Downton Abbey with a stranger, and you’ll have marked yourself as clearly as the dude who says he loves Duck Dynasty. So we moved our TV talk into a safer space, at bars or brunch or someone’s birthday party, where there’s much less chance of disconnect.
However small our motives, though, and however dull our discourse, the vaunted quality of modern shows papers over everything. That’s why we have to keep the chatter going, to remind and reassure ourselves that TV is meritorious. Alright, okay, it’s true, the content may be worth our time—but the commentary isn’t. We don’t need this in our lives. If our TV talk were on the DVR, we’d delete it.