Sacrificing Life to the TV God

Escapism “Relief” and the God who Never Tried to Escape

CJ Green / 6.9.20

My total depravity was revealed some years ago when a friend asked me to describe a time I felt closest to God. I’m sure she was fishing for some sort of prayerful experience, or a moment of crisis when I felt the hand of the divine rest gently on my shoulder. But after a moment of quiet consideration, I admitted, “I feel closest to God when I am addicted to TV.”

It was a ridiculous thing to say. But I know I am not alone in this. Even before the pandemic, I had noticed that all of my oracles were binging. A mentor of mine burns through Brooklyn 99 for self-care; a counselor I know consumed The Sopranos in two weeks flat. In quarantine, this “lifestyle” has only become more acceptable. There is hope to be found in the divine tug of the “next episode.” There are otherworldly promises in the “New Releases” queue.

In TV criticism, addiction has become a good thing. In a telling review of The Stranger, one critic wrote, “Mediocre TV + Weird Mysteries – Restaurants x Extra Hours = Addiction.” And according to the Guardian, Riverdale is the ultimate binge because it is “hysterical, addictive.” Love Is Blind was described as “revolting, endearing, toxic … and addictive as hell throughout … I have never felt better or worse about myself … Enjoy.” Despite the obvious humor here, addictions exert power; they subdue and render us powerless. They’re compulsive, and you have to indulge. Tuning in may give you a thrill, and only afterward do you realize you’ve tuned out of your life.

From where does this addiction derive its sneaky appeal? Loneliness is probably a big factor. Over the course of episodes, you come to know characters, feel a kinship with them, as if they were populating your home and not just your head. There is the social aspect, too, the feeling of solidarity with an increasingly fractured culture. When we power up the TV, we may feel as if we are connecting with something bigger than ourselves. (So often, though, this turns out to be a flawed mythology. How many conversations about TV go like this: “Have you seen X?” “No, but have you seen Y?” “No, but I’ve been enjoying Z.” “Oh, okay, I’ll have to check it out!” And then you never do. Some connection.) This is how TV begins to operate like a law in itself. If you haven’t seen Tiger King or the Michael Jordan show, kudos. You’re stubborn as hell.

Many shows of course are clever, beautiful, and world-expanding. (Are there any on right now, though?) Like alcohol and money, TV itself is neither good nor bad, and swearing it off completely can have its own tragic side effects. A friend of mine grew up without TV, and she tells the story of finding a set of Gilmore Girls DVDs: it was like an awakening. But for many of us, compulsive watching can be deleterious. Late-night screentime negatively affects sleep, and time passes quickly while some random plot absorbs you. Escapism is a fine relief every once in a while, but it’s worth taking note if you’re escaping constantly. Every night. For hours. It may even take some imagination to come up with alternatives. But there are many.

I recently spoke to a friend who lives alone. His TV was keeping him up at night. Rather, his inability to stop watching it was. We struggled to come up with a plan. Unplugging the device sounded silly, but that’s what he decided to do. And then he picked up a hobby.

Replete with pandemics, corruption, unrest, and the constant flow of sensational news designed to keep you clicking and/or give you a heart attack, reality, for many of us, has lost all appeal. Lady Gaga has canceled Earth. Many people have found humanity’s greatest hope in the recent SpaceX launch. For the non-astronauts among us, well, TV is like a space launch in itself. It offers a world to disappear into. For anywhere between 20 minutes and many, many hours, you can leave this whole sh*tshow behind. You can escape. And in the best sense, escapism is a religious experience.

But in my religion, God came to the earth, and did not try to escape it. Jesus lived on this planet. For some thirty-three years, he didn’t leave it, and when he did, he was forcibly removed: and then he came back. When he told stories, it was not so his listeners could numb out to entertainment, but so that they would learn about the God who had created them and their lives in the world. I take this to mean that this place is good, and it’s where we’re meant to be for now. On or off the couch, this life is, actually, a gift.