Since I first subscribed to Hulu — or rather, since I began freeloading my parents’ Hulu subscription — all I ever wanted was a way to integrate the applications taking over my life via handheld devices onto the behemoth screen that concenters the living room in my apartment. Of course, this wasn’t some prescient pipe dream, or anything. We, in humankind, had made it possible to stream online videos as at-home entertainment for quite some time before I finally had access to the hybrid progeny of tube and tech — the Smart TV.
The transition to smarter, web-ier watching had one pit stop between. My first Northside apartment, shared with a roommate with tastes straight from West Elm (for a visual), introduced another first: Chromecast. It was a lovely but imperfect partnership. Netflix and YouTube ran like a dream, ushering in a ritual I never gave name to but will here call “Beyoncé Fridays,” which involved casting Beyoncé’s videography in chronological order (from “No, No, No Pt. 2” onward) while pregaming alone for a night out. Past these apps, however, it was tug-and-pull mirroring content from unsupported applications that seemed to acquire roughly shod cement shoes compared to the clear, speedy results with compatible services. This was only a minor hitch in my viewing habits, though. Neither I nor my roommate was ready to cut the cord quite yet, and contrary to headlines adding cable to the enormous list of millennial murder victims, we still relied on regular prime-time television to fill in the gaps.
When, last year, I moved in with a boyfriend who wasn’t in any hurry to re-up a cable subscription, I barely gave it a second thought. I was much evolved from the person impressed by a tiny dongle plugged into the side of the TV. My app arsenal had grown by leaps and bounds, comparatively. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Prime Video — what more would a dissertating doctoral student need? (I am only occasionally haunted by the advice given to me in undergrad from a Year Infinity grad student: “Never buy a television if you want to finish.” My research surely wouldn’t miss wasting afternoons with Judges Milian and Mathis, even if I might.) When my boyfriend offered to upgrade his own television to a bigger, better model whose dimensions escape me, I only cared that it would have apps.
It was bliss for a time. My naïve supposition that life without cable would be infinitely more productive was dashed with the quickness. How could it not be? I could watch back-to-back episodes of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with nary a lag, or finally figure out what the fuss was with Deadwood (truly, a gift) without renewing my HBO subscription. I could stream Lemonade in all its 1080p glory straight from Tidal. For this piece on SpongeBob memes, I settled in and let Amazon Prime do its thing. Naturally, the old faithfuls remained in the mix: YouTube (feeding my love for music videos and messy beauty-guru drama) and Netflix (home of the Black Twitter obsessions She’s Gotta Have It and Dear White People). As well as the torrents, lots and lots o’ torrents.
The onset of the obnoxiously titled era of “peak television,” brought along the foregone conclusion that there are now more critically acclaimed hours of television available than anyone who works for a living could reasonably consume in a lifetime, a unique crisis for even casual fans of the medium. (Meanwhile, this has been a fact of my wheelhouse for ages; I study novels.) Our smart TV seemed to amplify a sense of urgency about this development, for all its futility. I am nobody’s TV snob — my favorite show of all time is Seinfeld — but I felt our watching habits imbued with an added sense of purpose. The simple, daily question, “What should we watch?” suddenly had stakes. Do we scroll to this app and watch the trending prestige drama of the day? Or do we peak behind door No. 2, where lies the fourth season of the quirky dramedy we’ve been following since the beginning? Or maybe a movie instead? After all, That One Oscar Contender From Two Years Back is set to depart this one streaming service in two weeks and who knows when it’ll be back. We couldn’t be mindless about this, heaven forbid.
Obviously, none of this petty anxiety was about the smart TV anymore than Erika Jayne’s beef with Dorit in season seven of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was really about panties. Though these daily melodramas congealed about the TV itself, the real referent was deliberation, dramatized by the transformation of television from a tool with options to a tool of choice. Choice, as my liberal education tells me, is always a good thing. Yet in a mass-media landscape with infinite choices that unfold into personal judgments about politics and taste level, with too many must-watches and the-show-we-need-right-nows to count, sometimes it’s nice to flip to a commercial-filled Four Weddings on Saturday morning and go fry an egg without the fear that some crucial bit of dialogue has been missed. Sure, you can absolutely stream a random season of anything for background noise while your attention is placed elsewhere, but there’s at least a smidgen of guilt involved. You chose this show out of so many others and you’re not even going to watch it? Cable sure as hell doesn’t care how long HGTV has been playing while you lounge hungover on the sofa (hypothetically), but Netflix does.
I was my own curator and didn’t have the stomach for it.
There’s good reason to be thoughtful about the art we consume. No entertainment is truly mindless and some of the most seemingly apolitical content has a way of working inelastic, normative ideals into hearts. But the worry shouldn’t fill someone with doom, lest they back the wrong dramatic horse that evening. Let’s be honest, history — if civilization lasts long enough to look back — won’t see much of a difference between True Detective and Westworld. Some 50, 40, or even 30 years from now, the shows so fastidiously quarreled over will blend together in one blurry epoch.
As of a couple of weeks ago, we are proud recipients of a monthly cable bill. Having cable has added nothing to the quality of content onscreen; it’s almost certainly reduced it, giving me back all the house-flipping, network news, and syndicated ’90s sitcoms that haven’t aged as well as the reboot rush would like us to think. There’s an admittedly pathetic comfort in succumbing to whatever cable deigns to air at a given point in time. It’s a more honest acknowledgement of the entertainment powers that be, the realization that, still, we as consumers don’t have as much choice as we think. Everyone’s a critic, as they say, and that’s never been truer than in our present moment, but criticism is work, and work is tiring.
But also, counterintuitively, I feel as though I’ve reclaimed some time in more than just a rhetorical sense, reenergized by knowing that the final season of Deadwood isn’t going anywhere anymore than The Grapes of Wrath is. A smart device need only be smart when called upon.