Saturday, March 6, 2021
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My Season as a Couch Potato


Like many of you, I’ve watched a lot of movies and TV shows in the past six months, way more than usual. I can’t even remember what I used to do with my pre-pandemic evenings – read, I suppose. 

Oh yeah, and go places.

Ridiculously, I feel shame when I watch TV. Maybe because my dad called it the boob tube. Maybe because I have a horror of morphing into a couch potato. I can’t shake the belief that reading books is active, watching TV, passive — and therefore, bad.

A filmmaker friend once tried to talk me out of my anti-TV snobbery. These days, he told me, some of the best writing around is for television. 

I totally believed him, and could only say in my defense that I lost the TV habit after high school (when I regularly watched “Mission: Impossible,” “The Mod Squad,” “Room 222” and – this is getting embarrassing – “Marcus Welby, M.D.”) and couldn’t get it back. 

I took perverse pride in rattling off the hit shows I mostly missed: “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” etc.

When friends expressed disbelief that I hadn’t seen this or that show, I doubted I was missing anything important. When they made me watch an episode of one of their favorites, I was underwhelmed. This wasn’t one of the better ones, they’d assure me. 

Mmm-hmm, I’d say, and resume filling my leisure hours in whatever way I used to fill them. Reading, I suppose.

Then came coronavirus. At first, my beloved and I watched movies. Then we decided to give one of these vaunted series a chance. Somewhat arbitrarily, we chose “West Wing.” And got hooked. And then, inevitably, burned out.

What’s great, for a while, and then ultimately tiresome about the spawn of Aaron Sorkin is the snappiness of the dialogue. Every character is a witticism machine, which means they all start to sound like they have the same brain. As with almost anyone you spend too much time with, the Sorkins started getting on my nerves. Watching them lurch from crisis to crisis became exhausting. The West Wing, as a physical space, became claustrophobic. 

Finally, we took a break from the Beltway and watched “The Queen’s Gambit,” which is basically “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” only chess (and drugs) instead of comedy (and deli): Same time frame. Same loving attention to period detail. Same theme of a woman making it in a man’s world. I liked it, mostly. (And wish the sore loser of Mar-a-Lago would watch it to learn how to be gracious in defeat.)

After “The Queen’s Gambit,” we gave “West Wing” another go, but the thrill was gone. We skipped past the last three seasons to the final two episodes, satisfied that Josh and Donna had finally partnered up, Toby had been pardoned and C.J. was going to save the world. 

Meanwhile, we joined an international film club. Every week about 10 of us watched the same movie, then gathered on Zoom to discuss it. 

Compared to “West Wing,” many of the selections seemed as slow and silent as pre-climate change glaciers. Some weeks, I enjoyed the conversations about the films more than the films themselves. Some, I loved. If you’re desperate for non-Hollywood fare (and don’t mind subtitles), here are my faves, with country of origin: 

  • “Mustang” (Turkey)

  • “All About My Mother” (Spain)

  • “The Secret in their Eyes” (Argentina)

  • “The Lunchbox” (India)

  • “Caramel” (Lebanon)

  • “City of God” (Brazil)

And now, some observations from my season of cinema consumption:

  • Because feature films are supposed to be 90 minutes long, minimum, directors with only an hour of good material will drag things out like a schoolkid who writes “it was a very, very, very hot day” to get to an assigned word count. This is the only reason I can think of for the amount of time they devote to showing us an ordinary landscape as seen from a moving car or train, or lingering on a character who isn’t doing or saying anything.

  • Endings are hard. The argument against tidy endings is that life is not a brown paper package tied up with string. But unsatisfying ends are not among my favorite things.  

  • Surprised by lavish praise for films that I think are only mildly interesting, I suspect that critics cry tears of gratitude for any film that seems smart compared to the kiss kiss bang bang sludge they usually review. 

Despite spending many pleasurable hours in front of the TV last year, night after night, just before reaching for the remote, I announced, lest the ghost of my dear, departed mother lurked, that I had put in a good day’s work and therefore deserved a little tube time. 

If you’re out there, Mom, all that watching was really research for this column.