5 Weird Things I Learned By Purging Pop Culture From My Life
Saying "I'll get to it soon" when someone recommends a new show, movie, or 15-book fantasy series has taken over as my number-one social white lie, pushing "Yeah, we totally should start a podcast" into second place. I'm never going to watch or read half the shit I want to, and I'm never getting to your recommendation. The reasons for this are mostly obvious. I'm older, I have more responsibilities, I don't have as much free time as I once did -- all true, to an extent. But the reasons I'm losing my former rigor mortis grip on pop culture go a lot deeper than that. The thing is, they didn't start making themselves known until I cut movies, shows, and every other entertainment distraction out of my life in a desperate attempt to get to bed before dawn. Here's what I learned by doing that ...
Cutting Out The Constant Need For Input Relieved A Stress I Didn't Know I Had
It was a massacre. As I cut shows loose so I could get some actual human sleep, a small stress lifted from my subconscious, one I didn't even know was here until I started hacking away at it.
Over the years, I got into so many different TV shows, games, movies, and books that you'd need a 1960s-sized computer to accurately display the number. It was all just so easily accessible. Eventually, I couldn't watch one episode of a show without feeling the sting of each unread book on my shelf. And I couldn't dive into a new game without at least giving a thought to all of the movies that'd been sitting on my Netflix queue since I started my account back when their only service was mailing DVDs to your house one at a time -- the way the original cavemen used to. Each item in my ever-expanding queue added more reason for my eventual nervous breakdown at the hands of Netflix's slate of original programming. Getting rid of each thing felt like unleashing a stream of farts after a date.
Chipping away so much left me with a lot of free time that I had no idea what to do with. I was suddenly one of those old guys whose wife of 60 years had died, so he dies too because he doesn't know what else to do. With less of everything in my life, I'd be done catching up on everything hours before I used to. But I wasn't programmed to see that as an opportunity to get more sleep. "Great!" I thought. "Now that I don't have to stay up till 4 a.m. catching up on The Walking Dead, I can finally get around to reading every Batman comic published since 1939!"
Addiction runs in my family. My grandfather was addicted to gambling, my dad was addicted to alcohol, and I was addicted to YouTube clips of 1990s Conan O'Brien. Every generation has their struggles. Mine are just dumber. Still, it felt good shedding myself of all the extra layers of distraction. It was like shitting day-after hot wings I didn't even know I ate.
Once the shock started to wear off, I established a new rule. Actually, a few of them.
It Forced Me To Raise My Personal Standards
I was talking about all this with John Cheese, and he put it best: "It says something about us that we're so hungry for entertainment that we find ourselves settling for half-assed shows. Or worse, ones where people are like, 'Just give it until season five. If you don't like it by then, you're never going to like it.' So I have to sit through 50-100 episodes before it gets good? Fuck both that idea and your aunt."
We're in the Golden Age of ... well, everything. Which makes sense, since there's so much more of everything being produced. Some of it is bound to be incredible, some of it will end up bad, but a the overwhelming majority is so mediocre that talking about it with actual words does it a disservice. Only primitive guttural sounds of indifference like "Meh," "Eh," and "Blah" feel adequate. I was watching, reading, playing way too much ... stuff. So I created some new rules for myself:
1) If I don't see a shred of potential by the middle of the first season, a show is dead to me.
2) A movie has 30 minutes to invest me in its story. If it doesn't, it's stopped and its runtime is filled with a YouTube montage of Schwarzenegger one-liners.
3) If after 50 pages, I still don't know what's going on in a book because it's not interesting enough for me to remember, it's getting sold for a penny on Amazon and listed as kindling.
They all share a common theme: I don't care what the author/showrunner/director has to say after a slow or dull start. I know it can take time for some projects to find their voice, for the actors to settle into their roles, for the writers to understand how to write for the actors. I just don't want to wait around while they figure it out. I'm trying to live a life here, and all forms of entertainment keep saying, "OK, give me a sec. I almost got i- AH SHIT I DON'T GOT IT." When you figure it out, make sure you let me know through one of my friends so I can give them the slip with the old "I'll get to it soon" routine and then proceed to never watch it, as originally planned.
It Made Me Realize That Characters Aren't Very Relatable
If any of us ever actually met some of the characters we're entertained by, within minutes we'd all be hastily scribbling their names onto our People Who Can Fuck Off Forever lists. I've always thought it was weird how there are personality types we'd never want to be associated with in real life ... but shove them in a 22-minute sitcom and we'll laugh for nine seasons as they continue representing everything that we hate about humanity.
I don't even recognize some of them as humans anymore, even though I still consider most of them to be exquisitely written characters. I can still like a song even if it's being played so loud that my ears are bleeding. But if every song I liked were played that loud, after a while I'd stop listening to music altogether until the people with their fingers on the volume knobs are tackle-teabagged into dust.
I had to stop watching House Of Cards early on when it reduced itself to a bunch of Snidely Whiplashes tying damsels to train tracks all across Washington, D.C. I don't have the patience for an entire series of Shakespearean morality plays about sociopathic power-hungry maniacs seizing power. At least Game Of Thrones has the decency to toss some dragons and vagina demons in to mix things up.
Cards is the easy example. Let's look at a comedy: It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. It's been on the air since the Carter administration, and it's still funny and exceptionally written. But every character had their volume turned up to 11 with the knob broken off about seven seasons ago. The trillions of characters throughout the Marvel and DC cinematic universes fall into the same trap. I can't even point out specific examples, because the list of unrelatable over-the-top characters is "all of them." Not just because they have superpowers, but also because the side we're supposed to empathize with doesn't exist in an actual human world. Even Downton Abbey can sometimes be so passive-aggressive yet melodramatically bitchy that it feels like a season of Real Housewives staring imperial officers from Star Wars.
Before you fly off the handle, you need to understand that I'm not saying these shows are bad. I'm not insulting you for liking them. I'm saying that when I cut out most of the pop culture from my life, this cartoonish aspect of every character shot out at me like Johnny Crotchlight's crotch beam (still the most underrated Marvel character, in my book). The blown-up personalities are fun, and they keep us coming back just to see what zany antics they'll get up to next, but step away from them for more than a few minutes, and all you can see is Wile E. Coyote saving the world.
I Realized How Often A Glowing Screen Played A Role In My Friendships
As I look back upon my life, I see the bounty of enlightening dick-and-fart-joke-laden conversations I've had with friends and lovers alike. I hold their memories dear. In preparation for this column, I found myself drifting off into them for reasons I couldn't place. Something was pulling me toward them, a looming menace in the background. As I got closer, an epiphany rolled over me: If the camera that recorded my memories panned to the side just a bit, in the background, like Slender Man hanging over my shoulder in a childhood photo that I drew, there was a bright screen acting as a buffer.
Strangely, it wasn't really a "Holy shit, I'm getting old and don't understand technology" moment. It was more "Holy shit, I had no idea how often that happened." It's not a good thing. It's not a bad thing. It's just a thing. Realizing that felt weird to me.
Almost all of my best conversations were sparked and sustained by the events unfolding on a screen. I mean, honestly, it's so much easier to jump-start a deep talk when Commando is on Cinemax and Schwarzenegger's suplexing yuppie cokeheads in phone booths. That's a five-hour conversation starter with multiple branching paths.
But take that away, and I was kind of dumbfounded. It turns out that -- at least for me -- having a conversation without that sort of catalyst was hard. It took practice. And a whole lot of apologizing to my friends for the lack of Schwarzenegger.
I Found Out That I Can Only Care About So Many Things
Years ago, our very own David Wong wrote a column about the Monkeysphere (otherwise known as Dunbar's number), a sociological theory which suggests there's a cognitive limit to the number of people you can give a shit about.
Sure, its primary application is to apply boundaries to human empathy and ask whether humanity is truly capable of helping one another on a grander scheme, but it's much more applicable to the CW show Supernatural. At one point, it was at the core of my pop culture fandom. As new and much better entertainment options entered my view, they naturally pushed Supernatural onto the outer rim of my capacity to give a shit about the adventures of two handsome denim models fighting ghosts for an eighth season that I'm now just watching out of sheer obligation.
The time I used to invest into caring about the Brett Thunderscrotum, P.I. urban fantasy book series was split with the Sargent Nazi Killer comic book series, which might be naturally phased out of my attention by a freshly discovered, riveting NPR podcast in which a guy from Brooklyn invades the life of some random guy from the South like he just discovered a new Amazonian tribe.
My attention span's reach used to be huge. Now, it's about the size of a Jamie Kennedy support rally. For me, that's a good thing. It means I can take my time and let a select few pieces of entertainment sink in. I can allow them to affect me. I can parse their plot points and empathize more deeply with their characters, rather than immediately rush off to the next distraction which I have about as much interest in as the credit sequence.
Look, I'm not telling you to give up pop culture or to take a shit in your PlayStation. I'm not some angry old man who thinks people can't connect as humans because their phones are evil. And I'll be goddamned if I'm going to be that asshole who's like, "You kids need to go outside and experience real life!" Because fuck that guy. I'm saying that when I started filtering out the things I was consuming just to consume, the quality went way up. At least it did after a brief detox, working my way through Brett Thunderscrotum, P.I. withdrawal.
But, seriously, you should take a shit in your PlayStation. That would be hilarious.
Also follow us on Facebook. We're down with the zeitgeist, daddy-o.