I had a frisson of recognition when reading this feature by Roger Luckhurst from this week’s Times Higher Education on the appeal of boxed sets of television series to academics. The article picks up a number of themes that rang true – a sense of satisfying completeness when you get to the end of a season or whole series, the must-see productions (and thinking about this has just made me add the first season of Mad Men to my Lovefilm queue), the ability of the boxed set to present something that’s worth watching at any point and thus overcoming the tyranny of (wretched) choice offered by multiple television channels.
Silly television has, for many years, been my guilty pleasure of choice. Being a classicist, there are plenty of television options that I could watch under the guise of research – HBO’s Rome springs to mind, and I got halfway through Spartacus: Blood and Sand before I left the States (all, I hasten to add, in the name of research. There are some benefits to working on classical reception). These series are, in the main, Very Silly, although they have some eminently respectable attempts at Doing Classics in them – the tauroboleum from season one of Rome comes to mind, as does the bruality of the gladiatorial ludus in Spartacus: Blood and Sand. However, Luckhurst hits on an important issue with watching this sort of thing – he comments that because his research speciality is the Gothic and science fiction literature and film, he avoids watching things that would fall into this category for pleasure. Why? Simple – “that compulsive academic tendency to turn leisure time back into intellectual labour”. Oh boy, am I familiar with that one. Not least because it’s a good way to justify taking time off from whichever top priority is the top priority of the moment – “I can have some downtime because it’s not really downtime, it’s research!”. Turning your brain off is hard enough even without trying to create an intellectual justification for relaxing.
So, in my search for television that allows me to turn my brain off, I have to dig a bit deeper. Or, rather, look elsewhere for things that are daft. I think the daftest, and indeed the current season on the go, is Sex and the City (now on season three). I didn’t watch this when it aired originally, and missed all of the hype and general keenness on it – and, in my Serious Scholarly capacity, I have some issues with gender representation and that sort of thing. But to me, it feels like that part of my brain is different to my academic persona (and critiquing representations of gender is just generally good practice). Plus I can notice when I’m feeling gentle outrage and why, but I don’t feel the urge to write an article about it. I can also just enjoy the silly television for silly television’s sake – I am aware that I am watching it for the purposes of amusement rather than edification, and enjoy it in its own right. I have the same sort of reaction to things like Footballers’ Wives and Desperate Housewives – loads of gender issues, but I can put them to one side for entertainment purposes because they’re not so egregious as to spoil my viewing enjoyment. (I did once have an idea for doing a paper on classical reception and Desperate Housewives titled “Domestic Goddesses: Overtones of Olympus in Desperate Housewives“, but I haven’t written it yet…)
Unlike Luckhurst, my research specialisation doesn’t push me away from science fiction and fantasy television, and that’s a jolly good thing, as I think it’s the richest vein of entertainment for me. I have almost (almost!) caught up with the new Doctor Who, and have taken a lot of pleasure from old!Who when I’ve been able to get it; I also spent most of my last two years as a Ph.D. working on the Whedon Project, which is a pretentious way of saying that I was trying to watch my way through the whole of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel before I lost the ability to stream them via Netflix. (I managed Buffy and got halfway through the final season of Angel – which I really should add to the LoveFilm list for completeness’ sake.) There’s something about science fiction that lets me be properly escapist, despite the fact that my critical analysis glasses remain on – the otherness of the storylines let me step out of worrying too much about the impact of That Sort Of Thing, or at least suspend those concerns. Obviously there are cases of problematic representation, such as the fact we haven’t had a female Doctor yet, but on the whole it doesn’t tend to be something that spoils the experience for me.
The final kind of television I turn to is the British period piece. Yes, I do mean Downton Abbey and its ilk – but also the Fry and Laurie Jeeves and Wooster, Agatha Christie adaptations, that sort of thing. Again, I think it’s the escapist quality – plus the fact that while it’s historically situated, it isn’t my period. It’s amazing what sort of difference that makes to how I engage with what I’m watching.
Two further things that I don’t think Luckhurst’s article addressed, but are certainly true for me. First, I like not having to watch things I don’t want to. I don’t do well with the CSI-style murder mystery, or indeed with anything involving gore, gruesomeness, human remains and murder, lots of blood, that sort of thing. (Period pieces like the Peter Wimsey mysteries and Agatha Christie adaptations are in a totally different category, but I think you know what I mean.) Being able to opt out of things that distress me is a Good Quality of the boxed set – The Wire and The Killing may be cult viewing, but I don’t have to go there.
Second – the television episode provides a bitesize chunk of leisure time. I might find it more difficult to watch a whole film in an evening, but I can definitely get enough time for an hour’s worth of silly television. Given how squeezed my time is, especially with the amount of ommuting I’m doing at the moment, it really is valuable to make the most of the time that I do have to wind down.