Tuned In

In Which My New TV Threatens My Livelihood

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I’ve bragged on this blog before about having the worst television set of any TV critic in America: a clunky 20-incher that dates back to the first Bush administration (41, not 43). Well, I’ve lost my bragging rights: I recently broke my home-electronics piggybank and became the owner of my first almost-big-screen plasma TV. (It’s 37 inches, as big as would work in my skinny Brooklyn townhouse living room, and if you think Time Warner picks up the bill for it, hey, from your lips to Dick Parsons’ ears.)

It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me as a TV viewer. And the worst thing that has ever happened to me as a TV critic.

The problem: everything looks great on it. Everything. (Sorry–if that sounds like boasting, it’s because, well, I guess because it is. Hey, I’ve been watching a cereal-box toy for the past decade–cut me some slack.) Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, a movie notable mainly for being slightly less crappy than the other crappy Star Wars prequels, practically made me weep. Closer, a movie that probably would have seemed sterile and precious to me a week ago, was luminescent and gorgeous. I want to watch sports all the time, and I do not like sports. The CNBC ticker is like a glowing river of liquid money. 

Nor am I the only one so affected. My 4-year-old son goggles at the new machine, as if to say, "As God is my witness, I will never read a book again." His little brother walks around the living room repeating, "Beeg TV. Beeg." And mind you, I have not even watched anything in high-definition yet, because getting an HDTV cable box will involve lengthy negotiations with the lethargic despots of Time Warner Cable’s Ministry of Technology, Set-Top Box Division, Digital-Cable Subdepartment. (Anyone who believes that big corporations are efficient monopolies has never seen Time magazine’s TV critic try to get a cable-service appointment from the same company that signs his paycheck.)

The upshot is, my critical faculties are screwed up. Even bad TV looks good to me now–not just good, but spectacular and mind-controllingly, propagandistically persuasive. Fox News’s explosive graphics and lurid colors are especially fantastic on widescreen: I watch for two minutes and I want to donate to the Republican Party. I see an Army ad and I want to join the Army. I watch MTV and I want to get platinum grillz on my front teeth. Until I adjust, I am going to assume that any new TV show I watch is actually 33% worse than I think it is.

On the other hand, I will probably be able to understand phenomena on TV that I never completely appreciated because I had a worse TV than 95% of the people I was writing for. For instance, I can see why so many of the new fall pilots I’m seeing–from NBC’s Friday Night Lights to comedies like ABC’s Betty the Ugly–look so cinematic and bank-breakingly expensive. Wide-screen TVs are in more and more houses, and the technology demands it. These machines are made for spectacle, not intimacy–in the future, intimacy will be for your cellphone, computer and video iPod. (Maybe that’s the schism we’re heading for–impossibly small screens on the go, impossibly big ones in the living room, and entertainment tailored for each.)

When so much of the audience owns TVs that look like movie screens, you have to produce TV that looks like movies. That can’t help but affect what TV looks like, and maybe even what kind of TV is successful. I have to wonder, for instance, if 24 would have been the hit it is today in the days of meeker TVs, and if the big-screen effect is why today, instead of the cool greys of Twin Peaks, you have the color-saturated Hawaiian vistas of Lost.

Of course, like any theory, this one will require extensive testing. Time to watch some more beautiful, bad TV.