Watching is Our Moral Duty, Apparently
One week long before the birth of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, when I was an impressionable child aged eight, we all gathered around the family TV and watched a miniseries called “Holocaust.” Never mind that two generations earlier, many members of my family had watched the actual Holocaust unfold, in real time. Here it was again, on NBC. The Holocaust! Starring James Woods and Meryl Streep!
Here is a fact to amaze you: more than 120 million Americans watched Holocaust. That’s approximately six times as many as watched the finale of Game Of Thrones. The miniseries also aired in Germany, and changed the way Germans looked at their history forever. And then the TV Holocaust was over. Well, they probably re-aired it in the summer.
But it’s not like anyone demanded that we watch the Holocaust. Back then, we only had four channels of first-run TV, plus a couple of upper-dial stations that showed old Godzilla movies and Popeye cartoons. Sometimes, the networks would push across something edifying. And thus, the entire world watched Roots. It was either that or Hawaii Five-O.
TV has entered a new Age Of Edification. This time, though, not everyone is watching. In fact, most people aren’t. But we’re supposed to be watching, because apparently the world is worse than ever before. People who apparently never watched Roots or Holocaust have been informing us that we currently sit at a low point in human history, and only TV can save us. We cannot look away. From the TV.
I’ve alternately heard that HBO’S Chernobyl is a parable about ignoring climate change, about the Republican attempt to pack the Supreme Court, about immigration policies, and about Planned Parenthood forcing women to have abortions. It is a dire warning against both socialism and capitalism, against The Soviet Union and The United States. Either way, it’s a dreary and depressing and well-made and important show that all people of sense must watch, just like they must take their vitamins and get their 10,000 steps per day. We must watch Chernobyl unfold lest a Soviet-era nuclear accident occur again.
The same goes for When They See Us, on Netflix. I’ve seen countless social media posts where people said they tried to watch the first episode but had to turn it off because they were “shaking with rage.” It’s nice when entertainment evinces strong emotions. You’re supposed to gasp and laugh and cry while enjoying shows and movies. But how can “it will make you shake with rage” be an endorsement? I just need to read Twitter to do that. Nevertheless, we must watch it, or else we’ll never understand that the criminal-justice system is unfair to young black men. I had never considered that before. Surely this show will bring about the necessary social changes now that a few thousand enlightened Netflix viewers have shaken with rage.
Watching TV, that most passive of activities, has become mandatory medicine for people of good taste and judgment. No matter how depressing and difficult that TV might be to actually watch, we are not allowed not to watch. If we ignore The Handmaid’s Tale, which as a book served as an effective early warning shot against anti-feminist backlash, then we’re complicit in overturning Roe V. Wade. If we don’t watch Euphoria, then we don’t care about our children. Everything is a moral corrective, and everyone is always living in the darkest timeline.
It wasn’t like this, even recently. In TV’s golden age of the anti-hero, no one was preaching at us that Tony Soprano or Don Draper were actually stand-ins for George W. Bush or Barack Obama. No one argued that Breaking Bad, even as it illuminated a certain corner of our drug crisis, was a parable about anything other than the specific story it told. Holocaust, if I can recall it correctly, was not a thinly-veiled story about the horrors of The Carter Administration. Yes, we did have to endure Treme while history unfolded more or less in real time, but at least it provided smokin’ musical interludes amongst the scenes of John Goodman committing post-Katrina suicide.
So why does everything now have to be a volley across the bow? What if our TV isn’t actually a metaphor for The Way We Live Now? I can think of one instance in TV history where this actually made sense. When ABC aired the terrifying (and still terrifying) The Day After and the BBC showed us Threads, the world constantly stood on the brink of nuclear destruction. At that point, yeah, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to look away. But Donald Trump will still be President no matter how many people watch Chernobyl. And repeat viewings of Elizabeth Moss smuggling babies across the border in The Handmaid’s Tale are not going to solve our immigration crisis.
TV can be edifying, or it can be stupid, and occasionally if there’s a Very Special Episode, it can be both. But the entire point of TV is that it’s always there, no matter what the political situation might be. Less than a year after Holocaust, NBC featured a lineup of CHiPs, B.J. and The Bear, and Supertrain. That, too, is TV. And mercifully, no one was talking about it the next day.