How The Hell Did That Happen?

Seven years ago I moved to Boston to write instruction manuals for a startup that was going to change the world. Overnight, I became a technical writer. “Yeah, it’s a hit at parties,” I’d say at parties. That usually got a polite chuckle.

Several years, a buyout, and a layoff later, I’d been a marketing programs manager, a product marketing manager, an author, an editor, a blogger, a yuppie, a thirtysomething. Then, just this year, I somehow turned into something I’d never expected: a television critic.

When I moved to Boston, my roommate had a TV but I didn’t watch it that much. And when I lived alone, I didn’t get one. Sure, I watched some stuff at the gym or whatever, but not much. I didn’t trust television. I didn’t respect television. Yes, I was a pretentious twit (still am!), but also I just didn’t like what was on, and didn’t have time for it. The peak of that anti-TV sentiment was in college.

Except for junior year, I barely even knew anyone with a TV (possibly because I barely knew anyone at all, but that’s another matter). It simply didn’t occur to me that anyone paying $100,000 for a college education would spend time watching television. TV was for idiots, stoners, children, people in nursing homes. Not for me, not for my peers, not for anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together.

As a senior TA, I was confused when nobody signed up for my Tuesday 8PM study session. “Dawson’s,” the class explained. Dawson’s? Was this some other TA group, or a different class they all took? The Spanish department didn’t have a Professor Dawson. Maybe it was Freshman English? They had to explain to me that “Dawson’s Creek” was a popular teen drama. By that point, there was little point in going on to drill them on the difference between camarones and gambas. They were never going to take anything I said seriously.

These days, I have cable TV and TiVo and Joost and Netflix. Shows like “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” showed me how teen-oriented programming can break out of its genre pigeonhole and really say something about the turmoil of adolescence. The HBO originals lineup for the past few years — The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Rome, even Sex and the City — slowly convinced me that TV is not a vast wasteland but an art form of astonishing diversity.

It’s got conceptual pieces that were interesting the first time but have lost all their charm through endless repetition (“Big Brother) and self-obsessed auteurs who think their petty struggles and drug problems constitute interesting pieces (Hey Paula). And it’s got… well, all kinds of stuff. Some good, plenty of bad, and a hell of a lot of stunningly mediocre.

And it’s now my job to write about the most popular American art form. How the hell did that happen?

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