But also you can automatically remember the things that were popular enough to be discussed in such a place. Melrose Place, The Simpsons, Dallas, 30 Something, Married With Children…shows that spoke to generations of people. Shows that had the potential to become classics-- and some that actually made it to that status-- because they stirred something within their audiences. They were relatable, but most importantly, they were often controversial; they got people talking, and in turn, that got even more people interested in them. These shows were chock full of new spins on old ideas-- witty, clever, creative, unique…and for me, verboten.
Even in elementary school, we had a water cooler of sorts: it was called the schoolyard. Every morning my group of friends and I would gather and talk about the coolest music (New Kids on the Block), cutest boys (Mark-Paul Gosselaar and J.T.T.), and what we watched on television the night before. And that’s where we all varied. Though I was allowed to buy the NKOTB cassettes with all of my other little girlfriends—hell, I even had the complete set of trading cards and some buttons to match!—for some reason, my mother drew the line at owning the Jordan doll that would have gone so nicely with my fashionista Barbie. I mean, who better to date a singer than a model, right? But no. To this day, I don’t know if my mother nixed the doll idea because she feared they might be anatomically correct or what—the last time I asked her, she claimed she didn't even remember saying no when I asked for one for Christmas or my birthday. But she must have, because I never found it under the tree or in a stocking. It was just one more thing in the long line of fads in which I was not allowed to partake. Super ironically now, television just held the majority of those examples.
I must have had a bedtime back then, but I don’t remember what it was. It was probably during primetime, at some point, but even then it was a tentative plan at best. More often than not, even if I made it into my bed at the appropriate time, I could still hear the television through my bedroom wall, which was simply a louver door (the kind that slides open and has slots in it so sight and sound carry in long thin slits), and I would lie awake longer than I should have, straining to make out the dialogue in shows that were strictly off-limits. I didn’t get a television in my bedroom until I was about eleven or twelve, and I didn’t get a real door for another four years after that. Sometimes I still wonder why I never called Child Protective Services about that…
To be honest, I’m not quite sure what my parents were so worried about me picking up from television: when I was three years old and riding in my car seat in the back of his old Buick, my mother tells me a car cut us off, and I yelled out “@$$hole!” as we swerved around the guy. Apparently I had already been learning enough from my father. How badly could television screw me up??
For my friends, the current obsession at one point was a combination of The Simpsons and Married With Children (later they got into 90210, too, but oddly I never cared enough about that one to fight for viewing rights). Kids would come into school bursting to talk about the latest funny thing Kelly Bundy said, or what Bart Simpson referenced that they didn’t quite understand but maybe one of the rest of us did. The thing about that kind of humor is that most of it goes over the heads of little kids anyway-- like with the episode of Friends "where Ross and Rachel...you know:" they're kissing on the museum floor, and she stops him abruptly and says: "Oh, honey, that's okay," and he tells her that he just rolled over the juice box. Well, I was ten when that first aired, and without sex education in my New York City public elementary school, I had never heard the term "premature ejaculation" before (and my life was simpler for it!), so I just assumed she thought he had accidentally peed on her. Yes, seriously. Yet my father still feared it would cause me to grow up before my time. Thus it was banished from me. So he would sit in the living room alone, cackling heartily, as I feigned sleep, attempting to imagine the faces that went along with the few words I could make out. When one of my good friends went as Peg Bundy for Halloween when we were ten years old, I even had to pretend not to know who she was so my parents wouldn’t get suspicious.
When I was a kid I was closer with my father’s sister than anyone else, and because of it, I would often visit her and her husband for a week at a time, even without my own parents. They would drop me off—maybe spend the Easter or Christmas holiday with us—and then come back a few days later—a few days after I had gotten my share of freedom, I guess. They probably figured it was the safest place to leave me, though, considering my aunt and my uncle were über-conservative, and they lived in a big house tucked nearly away in suburbia, where I could play outside in the snow all by myself and never have to worry about a strange car pulling up and the driver trying to coax me inside with candy or a puppy, which was, perhaps, my father’s second greatest fear, right behind what I might pick up from television.
My uncle loved his cop dramas. He watched them religiously, with a glass of wine in one hand and the “clicker” in the other so that no one would change the channel—even during the commercials. His all time favorite show at the time was NYPD Blue, or as my father liked to call it: gratuitous fucking—both for the language and the reference to seeing Dennis Franz’ ass. Needless to say, that show was not permitted in my house, either, and sitting with my uncle, unaware of who anybody was or what was going on, I suddenly understood why my mother always made me invite the one moody girl in my class who no one really got along with to my birthday parties. Because while she never really seemed to want to be there and would choose to sit alone in the corner and pout the whole time, she probably felt better on the inside (even if she didn’t show it) that she had been included in the first place. She would know what everyone was talking about in the schoolyard the next morning, and that knowledge alone was a little bit of power. It made her privy to things that some others still weren't, and it made her one of the cool kids, too.
My uncle let me stay up and watch the show with him, and although he probably would have taken the time to explain the situations to me if I had asked, I never needed him to. I was hooked from the first scene in which Jimmy Smits hauled ass down some dark, dirty New York City alleyway after a perp., and I sat on the edge of the couch with my chin in my hands, soaking up every word. Should it be a surprise, then, that in high school, when I went on my screenplay writing kick, they were all crime thrillers? Not if you’ve been paying attention! NYPD Blue was just the tip of the iceberg; I did not even previously know I had an interest in finding out what was behind the door that it opened for me.
I still don’t know how my father found out about our little screenings—maybe I accidentally let it slip that I couldn’t wait to see if Jimmy and Kim Delaney finally got together, as I was convinced was only inevitable from the longing way they looked at each other over case files and stale cups of coffee. But he did, and he called my uncle, screaming like a lunatic and threatening to never let me visit again. If he was only trying to protect me from seeing Dennis Franz’ naked behind, then I guess I can’t really fault him too much, but let's face it, he's just not that caring!
My uncle probably assumed I was the snitch because the next time I visited, instead of just holding his finger to his lips and telling me it would be our little secret, I was sent up to the guest room promptly at ten p.m., so he could enjoy the show alone. I, on the other hand, lay awake well into the hour creating my own, albeit somewhat sophomoric, episode plotlines in my mind.
Because that’s the thing about censorship: the more you tell someone they can’t do something, the more they want to do it, and the more you don't let them see something, they usually assume something way worse. So the bar for shock value keeps being raised because of all of those people who were expecting one thing but end up getting another, and they end up even more desensitized than if they had just been allowed to see the original thing in the first place without all of the fuss.
A few years ago, I read article in Time Magazine that was talking about television going too far in terms of obscenity. One man was quoted as saying he wished things could just go back to how they were in the 50s. “Things were better in the 50s. The 50s this and the 50s that; the 50s were not corrupt.” Um, newsflash, mister: the 50s were not so different than life in 2005—which was when I read the article—except that in the 50s, everything was repressed. No one talked about homosexuality, infidelity, or impotence, but they were all still there. Interracial relationships, homophobia, racism, illiteracy: everything we still grapple with today was present then, too. It was just hidden behind cookie-cutter white-picket fences where women wore frilly aprons while baking cookies (from scratch!) and awaiting their husbands’ return home from work so maybe they would get that brand-new washer/dryer with his hard-earned paycheck. And if that man wants to live in the ignorance brought on by his own mind’s censorship, let him. But it won’t be bliss.
I often wonder if the man quoted in that article was just my father, under a pseudonym. I'd hate to think such archaic thinking still widely exists.
There’s a group in the south (also something I learned from this Time article) who spend their days watching prime time programming from nights prior and keeping a list of any time an obscenity is in place. There are categories: cursing, nudity, murder, adultery, etc. They create Excel spreadsheets that carefully list the date, program, episode number, and instance. For example, an episode of CSI could get a mention because it showed shadowy figures having a threesome in a seedy Las Vegas hotel room. These people are the Indecency Police (something I have deemed them—not something they actually respond to), and they post form letters on the internet so other “outraged” citizens can sign their names to petitions to silence such atrocities. If these people are able to prosper on a larger scale, and if the demands in their letters are actually met, then virtually every program will be pulled from the airwaves. I don’t know what the resulting new shows would be like, and quite frankly, I don't want to know!
Back in the day, my parents might have found a very rewarding career with these people. In the end, such behavior clearly backfired on my parents, though, as I found ways around their rules time and time again, and I now watch so much television a friend from college once told me “it makes [his] eyes bleed.” To that, that is one of my crowning achievements, and I guarantee that a large chunk of it would be shows of which neither my mother nor my father would approve.