As it tends to go when you’re perpetually single, I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out why I’m stuck in this position, to understand some root cause for my lack of intimacy that can be easily justified, explained away, fixed. I’ve never had a boyfriend, never been in anything approaching a long-term relationship, never been in love. Some days, this terrifies me; others, it doesn’t. I’m still young; you’ll find someone eventually, they say. It takes time. But what I think I’m coming to realize (news flash: this month’s life revelation™, discarded by the next) is that I’ve grown up with a skewed perception of time. I’ve been conditioned without a knowledge of how love builds and ebbs and flows and eventually disintegrates; instead, I’ve approached everything in life an episode at a time.
And I’m blaming all of this on TV.
I grew up a voracious watcher of television, binge-watching before such a term had even entered the vernacular, before Netflix became a performative act of anti-socialism. My childhood bookshelf was filled with TV DVDs, now all antiquated and worthless. (For whatever reason, the possibility of streaming didn’t dawn on me until it was too late.) My longest and most meaningful bonds were never with people, but with shows. I used television as an escape, as most do. But I went overboard. I’d hole up in my room night after night, fueled by insomnia and anxiety. I’d finish entire seasons in a weekend, watch and re-watch shows until I had every plot twist memorized. As an anti-social and awkward kid with a home life best forgotten, this was a godsend. 22 or 42 minute chunks of time where I didn’t have to think about anything else? Perfect.
But, now, as an adult trying to actually make a go of it in the real world, my lack of relational experience is becoming an increasingly heavy weight. It feels like everyone else was stumbling through adolescence and into high school and beyond, falling in and out of love and getting burned by the bad relationships while learning from the good ones. But love has always been an abstract concept to me — all I did was watch its fictionalized equivalent on a screen. Alone. I wonder if I wasted those formative years of my life? When I should have been out doing, I opted to be a passive observer.
Don’t get me wrong here: I still love TV, and watch far too much of it far too often. The same comfort, numbness, and alienation of losing myself in an episode’s confines still feels like home. TV is responsible for all the good things in my life, as well as the bad: The West Wing gave me my unrealistic idealism, Buffy taught me how to fight my demons, and Veronica Mars made me inquisitive and sometimes brave. I’m still not sure what watching seven seasons of One Tree Hill did for me, but I’m sure it was something. None of these things are replacements for human connections, though, and for too long I made them stand in for one.
What first drew me to television over any other medium–and one of its best attributes as an art form–is its ability to track a characters’ progress throughout the years, to make some honest-to-god attempt to emulate the rhythm of real life. But it’s taken me many years to untangle that what’s on the screen is a dim facsimile of the real thing. By watching these shows, as quickly and as studiously as I did, I set up some unrealistic, unhealthy expectations about the passage of time and the immediacy and development of feelings. When the conclusion to a story is only an episode-length away, what does that say about how much I value the present? TV taught me to disengage with what’s going on around me in favor of always looking ahead to the next thing. I find myself wanting a fast forward button, to skip over the getting-to-know-you phase of a relationship, and go straight to the comfortable middle… or maybe just the bitter end. The least life could give me is a little Are you still watching? reminder, something I could press to let it know that I am still interested.
The few notable relationships I’ve had have been short and painless, largely fizzled out over time due a perceived mutual disinterest. Looking back on those failed connections, I wonder how much of it was on my end. Has TV always taught me to race towards the conclusion of things? My mind tends to run in circles, tossing and turning and playing out every logical conclusion. A date turns into a boyfriend turns into a marriage turns into a divorce. All those neural pathways firing up–I’m binging on the possibilities of my life before I even get the chance to experience it for myself. I’m bored of it before anything even began.
That leads me to think about how all relationships are facilitated today: through a screen, not unlike the one I’ve spent so much of my life absorbed in. How much different is a text message conversation from a scene in a TV show? Is scrolling through your crush’s timeline the equivalent of watching the premiere right after the cliffhanger finale, leaving no time for the spark of uncertainty to linger? Anything experienced through a screen–whether it’s a phone or a laptop or a TV–necessitates a certain level of detachment. All digital interactions are studied and scripted, require a suspension of disbelief or trust in the person on the other end that they’re taking things as seriously as you are. Are we all just acting out our own TV shows, grey bubble by blue bubble?
I don’t have the answer to any of those questions–maybe TV taught me not to care so much about the answers either. All I know is that somewhere out there in the memory dump of time, there’s a row of old televisions that I used to call my own, flashing my favorite shows in the dark corners of empty rooms. They were my escape routes and lifelines, and each one has their own associations and quirks and dealbreakers. They represent the closest I’ve come to a romantic relationship yet, so they’ll have to do. I’m sure I’ll grow to understand the distinction between the people in these shows and the characters that may still populate my own life, but for now those episodes are all I know. All my ex-boyfriends are TV shows.
James Rettig is a Staff Writer for Stereogum. Follow him on Twitter.