Cable television was perfect and we ruined it

There is freedom in a lack of choice.

Cable television was perfect and we ruined it

There is freedom in a lack of choice.

Have you seen the movie The Core? It’s not very good. Bad, even. For those who’ve never had the pleasure (spoiler alerts ahead), Aaron Eckhart plays a scientist of some type — I’m not looking it up — who stumbles upon the realization that the molten core of planet earth has stopped rotating. This is very bad news. So he and a team of government-enlisted super scientists mostly played by That Guy actors have to climb into a planet-penetrating vehicle, bore through layers of the earth’s crust, all the way to said dead molten core, and jump-start it like the battery of a dead Nissan Stanza. Nuclear bombs are involved. Should they fail, humanity itself will be eradicated from existence. Stanley Tucci — a That Guy’s That Guy if ever there was one — channels Carl Sagan, sporting a spiffy black turtleneck, all cynical bon mots and eye-rolling smarm, a lit cigarette perpetually and perilously dangling from his lower lip.

Reductive, silly, requiring massive and near-constant suspensions of disbelief in order to keep The Core’s hackneyed plot chugging along. I love it so. It’s the perfect film to while away a lazy Saturday afternoon, nestled deep in the folds of a plush couch with a comically large hatpin thrust squarely into your cerebrum, blissfully free of critical thought.

The thing is, I would never consciously choose to watch The Core. Save for a few Delroy Lindo stans, no one would. No one logs into Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime or HBO Go or Roku or Fubo or YouTube Premium or CBS All Access or (now) Disney+ and actively thinks, “yes, among the myriad, constantly-expanding palette of viewing choices, give me this, please.” The only reason you’d watch The Core is if it were thrust upon you, or something you stumbled upon amidst all the other equally tepid options available on basic cable. But that lack of choice is why watching The Core makes me happy. Because I miss that lack of choice. Oh lord, I miss it so.

A la carte programming was supposed to be liberating, or at least allow consumers to make better, smarter, more culturally enriching choices. If you’ve got the cash, the story went, this promised better world is possible

For me, it’s too much. Way, way too much. I only subscribe to a few services from the above list and I can barely cope. Like a Sword of Damocles perpetually hanging over my head, every time I turn on the TV, I’m wracked by the fear that I’ll inevitably be missing out on something else, somewhere, that’s better, more enriching and fulfilling. All roads lead to failure, then, and with every hour passed gawking at the screen, I grow more anxiety-ridden. There’s an incredibly important show that I should be watching instead of this dreck! I just know it. Inevitably, I’ll start toggling between platforms, scrolling endlessly, cramming as much material into a relatively short time frame as possible, and FOMO-ing myself into a jangled frenzy.

And yet I’m failing, miserably so. I have not, to my eternal entertainment-based shame, ever seen The Americans. I have been told by many righteous fans that the artistry and trenchant commentary is self-evident. There’s no time. None. No time to watch Fleabag, either. Do I have to watch Fleabag in order to crack a few jokes online at the whole Hot Priest thing? No? Great. Mrs. Maisel. Looks wonderful. People wearing brimmed hats, all shot in various sepia-toned hues. Like Mad Men! Sorry. Never caught a minute of The Leftovers, nor Mr. Robot. I gobbled up a season and a half of Halt & Catch Fire but then let it go for reasons I can’t possibly recall. Bosch, Ozark, Schtitt’s Creek, Stranger Things. Peaky Blinders, an entire panoply of genre-bending animated series like Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Rick and Morty, and Bojack Horseman — I’ve seen dribs and drabs, sure, but nothing approaching the fulfillment of completion. I didn’t even manage to finish Twin Peaks: The Return and I fricking love David Lynch.

Look at that monstrosity. (It’s not even a complete accounting.) I should be able to carve out the time and space to consume some of these shows, right? Make some kind of dent in the ever-expanding Augean Stables-like pile. But no. Peak TV lies forever beyond my grasp, dancing merrily alongside all the real-world responsibilities and professional obligations which surely require my attention. Hell, if the TV critic Emily Nussbaum can’t stem the deluge, how am I, a normal human being, be expected to keep up. Like Lucille Ball and the chocolate conveyor belt (good show!) they keep coming and coming. (And don’t even mention all the goddamn podcasts.)

What I miss, then, is not being able to choose. Or rather, to have my choices not be in any way meaningful and not serve as some kind of cultural signifier. That they could do so was an implausible notion as recently as two decades ago, when the firm scientific consensus was that too much TV will inevitably “rot your brains.” Now, television has transformed into an art form that is simultaneously both too good and too plentiful. Were it simply a question of dozens upon dozens of Family Ties- and MacGyver-type ripoffs, it’d be manageable, even at the current scale.

But when television stopped being mindless drivel, or led directly to chronic mind rot, something was stripped away, if inadvertently: for me at least, a way to turn off my oh-so critical brain, a diversion in the best sense of the word. Now that it’s an art form, well… watching carries a burden. It is an articulation of my aesthetics and tastes. And, as such, choosing becomes an act of violence that cleaves away an entire universe of other, possibly superior, non-chosen paths.

In the wondrously elegant, pre-streaming world, none of these problems even existed. Instead, you watched something because it was on.

(My parents, in their infinite wisdom, tried in vain to point me squarely towards programming that might aid in my development as a human being. The good shows. Namely: PBS. The well-meaning, if occasionally treacly — sorry, Tom — spiritual teachings of Mr. Rogers. The gonzo puppetry of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, even the acid-infused ’70s funk of Vegetable Soup. And yet, I still hoovered regressive Saturday morning cartoons/thinly-veiled sponcon like so much sugary breakfast cereal.)

In the wondrously elegant, pre-streaming world, none of these problems even existed. Instead, you watched something because it was on. No other justification was needed, and the act of watching rarely sallied forth into the rest of the world. No recaps, no deep-bore critical analysis. Certainly no skull-rattling 24-hour sessions mainlining a full season dumped online, let alone a years-long investment in an epic, Dickensian arc before some sense of resolution is achieved. At most, we’d have to wait, like, a week for the conclusion of a Very Special Two-Part Episode.

Perhaps this makes me nothing more than yet another Old who’s scared of a changing world filled with newfangled gadgets and wants nothing more than to curl up the warm embrace of the bland and the familiar, as others have done before me. “Tivo Guilt” was identifiable enough of a phenomena that CNN fired off a blog about it in the mid/late-2000s. Back in the 90s, good old basic cable drove David Foster Wallace so batty he waxed nostalgic about what had been lost TV-wise in Infinite Jest. Asked what it is he misses most, the doomed punter Orin Incandenza says he fondly longs for the simple and simplistic joys provided by network TV sitcoms: “With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.”

My solution, then, is to run away, screaming, like a child. I can’t dump my overpriced cable service, not just because Spectrum has a straight-up monopoly in my neighborhood. Rather, in the end, I want less. The Core will be airing again soon enough, and if nothing else, I know how it ends.

Robert Silverman is a freelance journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Times, ESPN, The Guardian, VICE Sports, Deadspin, Esquire, and more.