It’s been roughly five years since I quit watching Netflix or movies in my home. My rule is simple: if I want to see a movie, then (a) it has to be good enough to impel me to leave my house and see it in a theatre, or (b) entertaining enough that I can be content watching it on an airplane when I’m too exhausted to do other work. If a movie doesn’t fit either of those categories, then I don’t know why I’d want to watch it in the first place. But the prohibition on watching narrative arts in my home forces me to be parsimonious in a way that I would not have to be otherwise.
I’m not particularly heroic, nor am I nearly as consistent as I would like to be. I still watch basketball, for instance, on the grounds that I need to permit at least a few minor vices so major ones do not overtake me. And I still manage to fritter time away by watching British comedy clips (though I have recently blocked Youtube in its entirety, so this outlet is diminishing).
But the decision to quit watching Netflix and movies in my home remains one of the single best, and hardest, choices I have made as an adult.
Especially Netflix. We have been told the past few years that we are living in the golden age of serialized television. What started with The Sopranos has most recently given us Game of Thrones. The number of series in between that one ostensibly must have viewed to participate in Intelligent Conversations About Culture is mind-boggling: Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, The Office….and those are just the shows I can think of in my sleep-deprived state. I suspect that one could learn to speak passable French in the amount of time those series require.
And to what end? I gave up watching movies at home in part because the attempts people made to justify them began to sound so tired and empty. Consider the commonly held notion that such viewing is necessary in order to be able to relate to one’s neighbors—as though what is most important about them are the television series’ they spend hours and hours consuming. Taking away television requires alternate sources of conversation to find common ground, it’s true. But it turns out that with a little work we can find out we have more in common with each other than we realize.
When television or movies become the default point of commonality, our conversations flatten out and we erode into tedious and uninteresting people. Unless someone is gifted with especially keen insights, conversations about pop culture artifacts rarely rise above the level of pseudo-thoughtfulness. That stems in part from the semi-serious nature of our times. We are not a particularly thoughtful culture, and unless one is willing to pursue ‘cinema’ as an art form, the most one can hope for from contemporary narratives is a posturing mode of ‘depth’ that belies how shallow we are.
But the form of media inclines us away from thoughtfulness as well. Movies and television are dominated by externalities, by what we see characters saying and doing. While film can show us the gap between the inner life of characters and their external performances, their form is not as conducive to doing so as novels are. That gap is crucial, though, for animating a certain kind of reflectiveness within the person consuming the art. Films are so saturated with information that they require considerably less work to consume. They breed passivity—unlike novels, the success of which depends upon a far more engaged audience. Television actively undermines the very skills necessary to be an interesting human being.
Somewhere near the beginning of my abstention I had a conversation with a prominent post-evangelical film critic, who suggested that watching House of Cards (remember that one?) helped people understand the nature of power, and might make them wiser. Set aside the fact that whatever one can gain from watching 6 hours of Kevin Spacey could be had many times over from reading Shakespeare. I suspect that few of us need to understand power in the way that House of Cards depicts it. In the past year, I have read one novel that turned out to contain the precise word I needed at that season, so House of Cards might be that for someone (like a Senator). But I suspect that mostly, people need to become more alive to the ordinary and petty sins and vices that dominate most of our lives—as Friday Night Lights depicts (which I think is the only TV show from the past 20 years I could in good conscience commend to someone’s time).
Even so, it was not these worries that fundamentally prompted me to give up television and the rest. Rather, my decision was made out of desperation to avoid becoming an empty soul, a hollow-chested person who might reach the end of my life having given a full year of it over to television—and in doing so join myself to the barrenness of the society in which we live. I don’t know if I am any closer toward becoming a more interesting, sanctified human being than I was in my Days of Netflix. But I know the shows that captivated everyone then the way Game of Thrones has now have largely passed from the realm of discourse, such that I am none the better for having seen them. And that gives me hope that forgoing as much of the Entertainment Complex as I can bring myself to will allow me to cultivate a life that in twenty years has enough depth to supply its own stories at a dinner party.