It’s 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I’ve settled into a seat in the darkened theater in the basement of Keefe Campus Center. I’m clutching a large decaf from Schwemm’s coffeehouse and listening to the whispers of the students in the audience. We’re about to watch the new episode of Lost projected onto the big screen.
I love my job.
My last assignment for Campus Buzz (see below) was to eat a fancy dinner. This time, my duty is to watch television. Can do! I grew up watching what I imagine any child-health expert would deem way too much of the idiot box, including PBS, cartoons, sitcoms, cooking shows, talk shows, late-night shows, documentaries. I would take it all in with theme-song-memorizing enthusiasm. (Even that blocky test-pattern thing fascinated me. The colors!) When I started as a student at Amherst, I didn’t watch much TV—and, surprisingly, I didn’t miss it–-but eventually I started dating a guy who had rigged his computer to get cable, and TV came back into my life.
Nowadays, I’ve very intentionally chosen not to have a television in my apartment, knowing that if I had one, I would let it eat up every minute of my free time. And yet I still manage to watch plenty of TV through my laptop. I get episodes of Lost and Ugly Betty on ABC's Website and clips of Late Night with Conan O’Brien on nbc.com . Snippets of my old favorites are all over YouTube , and I’ve been working my way through several series on DVD from Netflix and Frost Library .
With all these newfangled ways to watch television—not to mention oldfangled ownership of actual TVs—you’d think that today’s students would watch their favorite shows while sitting alone in their dorm rooms.
You’d be wrong—or at least not entirely right. Television viewing on campus remains a social event. After my boss in Public Affairs noticed that the weekly Calendar & News mailer always includes listings for TV screenings sponsored by various student groups, I volunteered (read: raised both hands and begged for the chance) to put my finely honed sitting-and-staring skills to journalistic use. I offered to do more than point out this trend: I would analyze it and explain it from various perspectives. I would deconstruct it. I am an Amherst grad, after all.
I first show up to the Campus Center for a Monday-night showing of 24, sponsored by Wieland Dormitory. In the light of the projector, I see a dozen or so students, most of them male, sitting in clumps of three or four, scrunched down, with their knees bent up against the seats in front. I’ve never seen 24, so until I can get a handle on the plotlines (something’s going on with Russia, some people have Arabic names, somebody’s a recovering alcoholic) I think about which actors I recognize. (I’m probably the only person in the room old enough to remember when Chad Lowe was dying of AIDS on Life Goes On.) The clumps of students gasp and groan, sometimes sarcastically, as the plot thickens. One girl predicts the exact bad-ass line that Jack Bauer is about to deliver. During commercial breaks, people call out to friends in other clumps. “This is boring,” the guy in front of me moans. “It needs more missiles!”
Two nights later, at the screening of Lost—one of my current favorite shows—I gasp and groan along with everyone. Later I call home, and my father tells me that TV has always been a social thing for college students. His friends used to get together to watch the original Star Trek. And of course, he said, sporting events always occasion big gatherings around the TV. (I hadn’t thought of that—sports being the one thing I’ve almost never cared to watch.)
So I can’t present this as a new phenomenon, but it is one that has held up despite an increasing number of alternatives, and these group-sponsored, advertised screenings make the phenomenon seem more official than ever in recent memory.
I notice that I can’t quite enjoy 24, largely because I haven’t been following the story from the beginning. I begin to wonder whether the advent of these scheduled group-sponsored screenings is partly due to the current surge in popularity of serialized dramas—cliffhangers that require you to watch every episode in order to keep up. Certainly, both 24 and Lost count as such “appointment television,” as did The OC, the prime-time teen soap of which the Amherst College Social Council sponsored screenings in previous semesters. Finally, I’ve formulated a theory! But it’s just a small one.
Another ostensible reason for the viewings is that the shows address the same issues as the student organizations that sponsor the viewings. Lost is shown by the Men’s Project , an Amherst student group dedicated to ending sexism and violence and to raising awareness about issues of sexuality and gender. A diverse cast of men and refreshing, gender-role-reversing scenes hint at the relevance of Lost to the Men’s Project mission. Indeed, former Men’s Project leader Tom Chen ’06E and current chair Andy Tew ’07 both praise the show for being innovative in its exploration of race relations, violence, sex and masculinity. Chen has written a blog entry about it. But ultimately, Chen and Tew are just big fans of Lost who realized that, through their group affiliation, they could give people opportunities to watch it in the Campus Center.
In his 2000 book, Thinking Through Television , Professor of Sociology Ron Lembo studied and theorized about the viewing practices of working Americans. He tells me that watching TV can be both a bonding experience and an isolating one. Families gather around the television like, as he puts it, “a hearth in the home”; co-workers chat about TV shows at the water cooler; programs attract cult followings and help define subcultures. Yet viewers might be engaging more deeply with the dramatic characters than with one another.
Lembo and I also discuss the idea of television as a form of escape. When people are weary of the pressures of work, school and family—when news of the real world gets too discouraging—we release our minds into fun, fictional worlds. The world of 24 might seem even more stressful than our own, but we can rest assured that Jack Bauer will always win against the terrorists.
As students file in for the next episode of 24, one complains to some others about how exhausted he is. He’s been working (presumably on a paper) for hours and hours, he says; he figures he’ll take one hour to watch this show, wake himself up, and then go back to work. I recall that when I was a stressed-out, sleep-deprived, overworked senior, campus events and social events were my escape. I would give myself a break when and only when there was some kind of scheduled happening to attend: a play, a reading, a party. I would’ve gladly shown up if the Fine Arts department had advertised, “7:30-9:30 in Fayerweather: Come Watch Paint Dry!” And to be able to sit next to my friends as we watched it dry and talk about the drying? So much the better. Students already have to spend large portions of every day alone and staring at computer screens--of course they’d rather watch TV on a giant screen, surrounded by other people.
Lembo has given me one more thing to notice during that 24 episode: how much the audience members talk back to the screen, make fun of the characters’ over-the-top behavior and dialogue and deride the commercials for being so obviously fake. Criticizing what we’re watching is a way of showing our intelligence and social competence, says the professor; we try to pretend we don’t take it seriously. But we do take it seriously. In between sarcastic quips, the elite liberal arts scholars lean forward and whisper things like, “Ooh! That’s [character], from before! Is he with [other character’s] ex-wife now?” The students are into it.
At Lost that week, I get into it, too. It’s a heavy, juicy, bloody episode, and we all make predictions and talk back. “Locke just needs to stop doing things!” I hear myself cry. “Nah,” replies a big guy in the audience. “Locke just needs to tell people first, before he does things. He needs to learn to communicate.” Score one for the Men’s Project.
And at the simple-but-eerie, completely-out-of-left-field twist ending, I experience the best part of watching TV in the dark, with a dozen other committed fans: the collective freak-out. All around me I hear shouts of “O-o-o-o-oh!,” “No. Way.” and various other exclamations I can’t repeat here. We stumble out, startled and laughing.
This watching-TV assignment has been more complicated than I’d expected. I’ve thrown around a lot of little theories, but I know only one thing for sure: I’m coming back to the theater next week. Same time, same channel.