Screening Room

How I put my TV habit in its place .

March/April 2011

Reading time min

Screening Room

John Cuneo

Recovering addicts speak of a moment when they "hit bottom." When the alcoholic sees the empty bottle and realizes the magnitude of his problem. When the gambler sees her decimated retirement account and resolves to change. This happened to me on a Wednesday night five years ago.

I was watching television, as I did too frequently. It was 2 a.m. I was sober, and yet I was watching a rebroadcast of Top Gun. In Spanish. With commercials. What's worse: I own the DVD.

Obviously, I had a problem. I didn't even really know what I was watching half the time. I'd turn on the television and there'd be some show: Law and Order or Las Vegas or Medium, and I'd watch it while preparing dinner. And then there'd be another show: Bones or My Name is Earl or So You Think You Can Dance, and I'd get involved in that while I ate. And then I'd wait up for the news, and then I'd want to see Letterman's monologue, and there was usually some guest worth catching, and then it would be 1 a.m. and I would have done nothing all evening except stay up later than I should have.

I had instituted, feebly, like a junkie who never gets high before 5 except on special occasions, the rule that there was no television between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. But sometimes I was sick, or sad, or there was momentous news. I work at home, so there was no boss to make sure I was being productive. And, as a novelist, I could theoretically justify my vice by claiming that I was gathering ideas. From Days of Our Lives.

That Wednesday evening (or, rather, that Thursday morning) as Maverick beat los Rusos and returned to la academia de Top Gun to enamorarse de Kelly McGillis, I decided that I would have to go cold turkey. I gave my television to my doorman, who happily carted it off to be someone else's bad habit.

That night, I had some serious DTs. The quiet in my apartment was eerie. I could hear my neighbors' thumps and bangs. I did the dishes. I straightened my desk. I made my lunch for the next day. And then, because there was nothing else to do, I went to bed with a book. I read for 45 minutes and turned off the light. It was 9:06.

The hardest part about being off the TV grid is admitting it to others. People assume I am some righteous hippie, unwilling to pollute my elitist mind with the entertainment of the masses, not that I'm in rehab from Celebrity Rehab. Another difficulty is that I am not fit for conversation in the water-cooler brigade. Half the time I haven't even heard of the show they're talking about. (What is this Sing-Off thing?)

There have been times when I was sorely tempted to stop by Best Buy and renew my addiction: the Oscars, when the Cubs actually made the playoffs, the time I had the flu for a week. But I stuck to my resolution, fresh with the flush of my newfound freedom from the boob-tube crack pipe.

After all, TV-less existence had its advantages. The New Yorker magazines I'd actually read for once exceeded those I'd yet to read. I had clean socks. I was well-rested. My skin looked great. I was more likely to make plans with friends, especially on weekends.

But in every story of addiction, there is the inevitable relapse. Mine involved the advent of television on the small-small screen, my computer, which was supposed to be reserved for writing. Sites posted the entire oeuvre of Arrested Development, back seasons of Weeds, episodes of In Treatment. I felt doomed.

But after a few late nights of watching series long-defunct, or documentaries on obscure topics, I realized that something had changed. This viewing—still nonproductive and excessive—lacked the catatonic joy of my earlier consumption. I'd lost my taste for pap. Sometimes, when resolutions are sabotaged, their new incarnations—addiction 2.0—are less intoxicating.

Yes, I was still up until midnight last night, catching up on season three of Dexter. But it was only one night this week, and, really, I was just gathering ideas.

ALLISON AMEND, '96, is the author of Things That Pass for Love and Stations West.

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