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Big TV and our small screen vernacular

TV gives even the most disconnected and apathetic of us a shared language, a shared experience. AAP Image/HBO

Slobodan Milosevic went to trial. Bali got bombed. Dudley Moore died and right up there with the memorable moments of 2002 was that 2.8 million Australians sat down and watched The National IQ Test. Because - mind-bogglingly – apparently a fair few of us cared to have our smarts assessed by Eddie McGuire.

Mock it I shall, but The National IQ test is an example of event TV. An outlier one too: event TV in Australia more commonly involves men and their balls.

Defined as that must-watch show we’ll blather about incessantly afterwards, event TV - by its very nature - is something that not only a good majority of us sit down for, but much more so, it’s the TV that becomes part of our collective experience. Our culture.

Event TV is a reference point, a source for speech patterns, for colloquialisms, and is a fall-back conversation topic when everything fails. Class, race, and education are each irrelevant when we’re all in the same predicament of fearing life post-meth once Breaking Bad wraps.

Class, race, and education are each irrelevant when we’re watching Breaking Bad. EPA/Paul Bucki

I’ve recently been spending time with a man whose belief systems challenge my own. Normally I try to be tolerant of wayward views on things like faith or politics. This relationship however, proffers a challenge far beyond my anything-goes liberalism. He. Does. Not. Own. A. Television. And never has.

I went to school with Exclusive Brethrens who didn’t have TVs. With that one Jehovah’s Witness who didn’t have a TV. I once worked with a lovely hippie who didn’t watch TV. Sure, it all seemed strange at the time, but when folks are only passing acquaintances their perverted lifestyles seem less concerning.

Getting to really know someone who doesn’t watch TV hasn’t quite prompted me to dwell on how much I watch - I’m rarely fussed about such things – but it has forced me to acknowledge just how much of a reference point it is for me and how extensively I use it to make sense of the world.

One of the characters in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl makes a worth-repeating point about how, since the advent of TV, we’ve all grown up in a culture where nothing is ever really new anymore. Where everything has been mediated to us by The Box. That even if we get the chance to, say, see the Mona Lisa up close, that the experience is shaped – narrated – by every single TV show that has ever made reference to it.

Ditto for every emotion, every life-stage, every bad date and awkward family dinner. It’s all been played out before us on the small screen. That nothing gets experienced in isolation from all the TV chatter around it.

Seinfeld never gets old. Flickr/Essl

In my current predicament, I haven’t stopped referencing Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm. I have however, annoyingly started prefacing sentences with, “I know you have no idea what I’m talking about, but…”. Because this man - brought up in the same country as me, having attended the same university as me - seemingly does not have the same set of cultural references. And it’s becoming a problem.

While dwelling on this, I thought back to some UK research. About how the black-and-white TV generation apparently dream in black and white and the rest of us do so in colour.

On one hand I readily acknowledge that all of the big world events for me – Princess Diana’s death, September 11, Hurricane Katrina, Obama’s inauguration - I experienced through TV. I need no convincing of its impact on my life, my memories.

But the idea that it affects the look and feel of our very dreams - that TV is impacting on us even while we’re all tucked up and asleep in our beds - is fascinating, perhaps scary, and for me validation that it’s quite okay, nay even normal, to be in so deep.

The manner we watch TV today has changed since that simpler time of yore when we cared about Channel 9’s take on our intelligence. Nowadays however, our anticipation of quality TV is so feverish that we’ll download it before waiting for it to be “fast-tracked” and when we do we’ll also be multi-tasking, multi-screening, and expressing our fervor to the world in real time via Twitter.

The manner we watch TV today has changed. Image from

It’s too easy to look to the good number of us salivatingly drawn to contemporary event TV of the House of Cards / Game of Thrones / Orange is the New Black kind and dismiss us as bad postured, astigmatic TV junkies who’ll watch anything.

Better writing, better production and better TV than ever before aside, we’re living a world where we’re less likely to be joiners. We’re less likely to go to church and join political parties and sporting clubs and unions. TV gives even the most disconnected and apathetic of us a shared language, a shared experience.

I wasn’t born early enough to have a moon-landing or JFK assassination story. I was however, on the treadmill for the last episode of Six Feet Under. And cried so hard I slipped off. I’m confident I wasn’t alone.

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