The thing I most associate reality TV with is my Grandma’s basement during Christmas time. Most of my cousins (there are ten of us) sleep down there over the holidays, clustered around the TV cabinet on a series of couches and air mattresses. The sleeping arrangements have been more or less the same for years: we know who gets which couch, which people will share sleeping mattresses, who will be the first to fall asleep and who will be the last. Always, after we’ve finished chatting or watching a holiday special, we turn off the lights and flip on the TV and since it’s easy, and no one can complain with the selection, we flip on HGTV or a cooking competition turned down to nearly inaudible as we drift off to sleep. It’s on whoever falls asleep last, or whoever wakes up in the middle of the night, to flip off the TV.
My second strongest association with reality TV is beach houses, the few that my more immediate family have rented over the years. We’ll lounge for the whole day, sometimes taking an excursion, and then in the evening after dinner while all ostensibly trying to read our books or catch up on just a little bit of work we really shouldn’t let slip through the cracks we’ll turn on Property Brothers or Fixer Upper or Love It or List It and sooner or later we’re all lowering our books or laptops or phone and meandering over to the couch to see what the hell happens with the house.
The shows aren’t anything like my normal television fare. They are strictly, strictly episodic, more so than even the most episodic shows I normally watch (they remind me, if anything, of podcasts: the hosts’ personality and the general theme are the only uniting factor episode to episode, and serve as the major “return draw”). They don’t even really have any narrative, in the proper sense. They’re as close as I get to good, old fashion escapism, especially because they feel totally divorced from my life. House hunting and improvement are wildly, wildly outside my personal budget, so the show is utter fantasy as far as I’m concerned. I watch them almost exclusively in far away places (especially since my parents cancelled our cable – even if I visit the house I grew up in they’re off the table). As a result they are some of my most memorable and fondest TV based memories.
Recently, during my once a week (more or less…) gym visit I watched an episode of Love It or List It while on the elliptical and I once again absolutely loved it. Returning home later that day I realized I could inject my day-to-day life with these sort of shows too, instead of just rewatching the same sitcoms over and over again. The new season of Queer Eye had just come out, and since it encapsulated both cooking and home improvement, it seemed the perfect fit. I flipped it on and say down to relax and accidentally watched the whole season in one sitting, going to bed much later than I wanted to but unable to stop watching. It was exactly the same issue I encounter watching any other show: I became overly invested and felt compelled to binge it to the point where I was barely having fun anymore. What the hell happened? This was not HGTV/The Food Channel the way I remembered it, it wasn’t even the way I recalled watching it earlier that day.
At the gym watching the shows remained the same relaxed experience. This past month I resigned my lease, and decided to finally start to fully decorate my room the way I want it. So I once more tried my hand at reality TV, watching The Great Interior Decorator Challenge. Again, I found myself awake uncomfortably late at night binging a show I had meant to relax me and float me off toward sleep. Sure, this show had more of a competition element, and sure, it had more of a seasonal arc, but still, what was happening?
In truth, it’s rather obvious. My fond memories were linked to HGTV and The Cooking Channel, but not fostered (exclusively) by them. At some point while watching The Great Interior Decorator Challenge I was furious with myself for scrolling through Facebook on my phone. “If you’re not watching this show, you may as well be using this time for something useful,” I growled at myself (yes, outloud). Which, of course, was the answer. I have a lot of deadlines I set for myself (this blog included), yet I often want to just sit around and watch TV, and the only way I allow myself to do that is if the TV serves a purpose. Or if I pretend it does. That’s why I get so disgusted with myself when I watch The Office time and time again. “You could be doing something with this time,” I mutter to myself. It’s the same reason I get so invested in TV I’m watching – it needs to feel like work for me to excuse myself from work. It fails as escapism because to justify it I end up turning it into more work, and when it’s not work I grow angry with myself. It’s not the TV shows, it’s the way I’ve decided to watch them. At the gym the connection carries over: already doing the work (out) I allow myself to get lost in the meaningless show.
One year, instead of watching a slew of Christmas Specials (which I have seen a zillion times a piece) I sat on my Grandma’s basement couch and watched A Requiem for a Dream (looking back I’d imagine this must have been the winter after starting film school). On Christmas Eve. Why?? Why not just rewatch the same damn Christmas Specials? Why not just watch two hosts faux-jab at each other about selling or improving a house? It’s the same with rewatching The Office, or with watching Queer Eye or The Great Interior Decorator Challenge. I’m burning the hours anyway, why not accept them as escapism and relax? (Which isn’t to say I can’t still learn a thing or two through osmosis).
Paradoxically escapism only works for me if I commit to it. That night while watching Queer Eye, after I had spent a few hours desperately committed to garnering everything I could from it, I moved into my living room at two AM (my roommate was away), plugged my laptop into the TV so it was far away from me, tossed my phone across the room, and lay down on my couch. I pulled a blanket over my head and turned my face away from the screen, allowing the mild voices to wash over me, and began to drift towards sleep, and in that moment and only in that moment did I really feel the way I’d wanted to feel. I felt like I was on vacation, or at Christmas with family, because finally I had committed to being committed to nothing.