At the risk of sounding glib, the only good thing about this pandemic is the free time I’ve had on my hands. Having worked in a sector that was hard hit by COVID-19, I had a few quiet months where I was unemployed. During that time, I picked up many new habits. Some good (like learning how to make authentic limoncello from scratch) and some bad (like smoking). One habit I’ve also picked up that could arguably be in either category is watching television.
Historically, I’ve never been much of a TV watcher. Having lived in dorms, guest houses, and even a convent for a few months, I never wanted to pay for cable for what I could rent on iTunes—remember that?—as needed. Other than a brief stint where I was inexplicably swept up into a reality show about housewives that shall remain nameless, I got most of my pop culture through the IV-drip of Twitter. This was early 2010s Twitter, before social media got all political.
It was only during the pandemic that I began to notice gaps in my cultural knowledge. While others were binging whatever was coming out of the MCU Industrial Complex or waiting for the next 90’s sitcom reunion, I would sit in silence.
But like reading Shakespeare or knowing the words to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, there are just some cultural moments that can’t be ignored forever. For me, it was the fact that I had never seen a James Bond movie and had no idea “No Time to Die” was such a big deal. Nor had I seen The Sopranos. And while I had watched Mad Men when it was airing and even went to the finale premiere party in Hollywood, I had no grasp of the pathos until years later. I guess it’s something you grow into understanding, as I did.
And so, this last year, I’ve been making up for lost time. Some would say that watching television while unemployed is a slothful way to spend my day. I argue that, being a creative, it’s a form of research (or, at least that’s what I tell my mom and why I wrote off my new Samsung on my taxes). I would watch Mad Men As a sort of digestif after dinner—inhaling the luxury of a good yarn spun around the human condition. For thrills, I watched classic horror films between the window panes of my fingers. I stopped and then started and then stopped and then started and then stopped “The Lord of the Rings.”
I’m now wrapping up the fourth season of The Sopranos. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a show entirely in the balance of gray morality of Real Life™. I don’t root for anyone on the show, but I understand the motives behind each character. I roll my eyes with Carmela. I know women like Janice. I tell my husband, “I’d do the same,” when Tony breaks a guy’s arm. In that hour I forget I’m a meek vegetarian living on a farm. In that hour, I demand justice for La Costra Nostra and have a craving for “gabagool.” And that, for me, to be so intimate with a cast, is the hallmark of a good show. Hopefully, I’ll finish just in time for “The Many Saints of Newark.” The prequel film, starring James Gandolfini’s son as a young Tony Soprano, comes out this weekend.
After all, now’s the time to look back a little, in this culture of nostalgia we all seem to be racing towards. Now is the time to become literate in those touchstones of culture that I somehow ignored. And maybe that’s a good thing. I can appreciate it all, now that I’m older and presumably the wiser for it. I understand the impact of cheating, the dreadfulness of grief. I get why the stakes are high the way I didn’t even a few years ago.
So no, that’s not a bad thing, to see these shows in a new light. Sometimes a television show, like wine, needs to decant a little bit. Its flavors become more nuanced when they do.