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By VALERIE SCHULTZ, Contributing columnist
Everything about watching television changed, as I recall, when the Betamax arrived. I came home from college one summer, and my mother showed me her latest acquisition: a Sony Betamax videotape machine that magically recorded a television show so that you could watch it again and again. It was like a homemade cassette tape, but for the TV.
My mother, who has since become a Luddite of the first order, could be considered in retrospect a technological pioneer in the 1970s. She proudly pointed out the two boxes (each tape was one hour's worth) containing the precious recording of "They Died With Their Boots On," a late-night, black-and-white Errol Flynn movie about General Custer and his infamous last stand. It was my parents' favorite film. The Betamax videotapes, with their homemade labels, were to be my father's birthday present.
I thought of the device as gimmicky. But then one of my sisters began taping the noon showing of the soap opera "Days of Our Lives" every day, and we all got together and watched it every evening. The hour-long show only took about 45 minutes to watch, because we were able to fast-forward the commercials. As we absorbed the tales of the lurid problems that confronted the Stepford-like residents of the fictional municipality of Salem, it occurred to me that the medium of television was being transformed before our eyes. I just didn't realize how much.
Fast-forward to the present: My children, of course, have never heard of a Betamax, vaguely remember the VHS, and have lived through the advent of the DVD and the Blu-ray. In dizzying fashion, even all of these innovations are dated, as we are now able to call up just about any TV show or movie and watch it on our television or tablet or phone, depending on the size of the screen we desire. Entertainment options are omnipresent. All of this availability has led to the phenomenon wherein we can watch a television show's entire season, or its complete run of however-many seasons, in one weekend, and that I think of as television gluttony.
As we consume whole seasons in a day, however, holed up in our homes, patting our full bellies, something has been lost. Watching a television series in isolation robs the viewer of the communal aspect of television, of the shared commentary and mutual suspense that used to happen when a group of people entered the world of a television show. Will Lucy and Ricky have a boy or a girl? Will Gilligan and his shipwrecked companions be rescued from the island this week? Where will The Fugitive search next for the one-armed man? Who shot J.R.? These used to be questions of national anticipation and speculation, and everyone found out the answers pretty much at the same time, allowing for the small stutter of different time zones. A television series acquired followers week after week, and devoted viewers savored the suspense between episodes.
True, I noticed some of that old excitement surrounding the recent finale of the series "Breaking Bad." But after its initial airtime, people had to ask each other if they had watched the final episode yet, before they could openly, passionately discuss the show's conclusion. It was not a given that people had watched it in the aptly named real time, or even that they were caught up on previous seasons, because now everyone watches TV on their own schedule, at their own convenience, in their own cocoon.
I confess that, even as I mourn the passing of the old ways, I am guilty of television gluttony. After resisting the hype about another British import, my husband and I succumbed to peer pressure and watched the first two seasons of "Downton Abbey" over the course of a couple of weeks. We were sucked into the world of countesses and dukes, and couldn't wait to meet each evening at the television to continue the story. When we caught up to the third season, however, we were impatient. We were hungry. We wanted to eat the whole Downton pie in one sitting. It seemed especially taxing to have to wait a whole week for a new episode. The hard truth of gluttony is that, even when thoroughly stuffed, one is never satisfied.
I feel melancholy remembering the television rituals of my childhood, when my family would gather in front of our only TV and watch the latest episode of the wildly futuristic show "Star Trek." In some ways, the actual future has turned out to be even stranger than the one that so enthralled us, as embodied by the crew of the Enterprise.
We have boldly gone ahead, warp factor eight. We have reached TV's future, but we may be consuming more than is good for us at one sitting.
These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian.