Anyone who’s ever been in the trenches will agree: A healthy relationship is one in which both partners really get to know each other. And to this end, watching television shows and discussing them is the ultimate cheat code, especially if they are fictional (ie. not documentaries) as they’re vehicles of communication to facilitate this interaction. When you are in school, especially in a liberal arts class, it’s easy: The professor can pose some open-ended topic (eg. “What is Justice?”) and then you and your classmates can really go to down having those 2am bull-sessions that run ’til dawn, with everyone pontificating away on their pedestals.
This mode of interaction isn’t only training critical thinking, receive-and-respond, debate skills, gauging-of-social-currency, but is also allowing you a window into the lives of others. To really know the other is to know what and how they think. Their beliefs and value systems. But there needs to be a medium for this discussion.
So why TV shows? It’s easy and something people in a relationship can jointly do together. The joint experience is important– a communal and collective feeling of togetherness. Reading is great but it’s a solitary endeavor. Watching a television show can be done snuggled together on sofas and in front of laptops. You don’t even need televisions or cable nowadays.
For example, recently Bagel and I have been watching Mad Men and that show has really brought us so much closer. When I was younger, other than the Sorkin shows, I never really watched television shows because I was always haughty and felt them lowly. Yes, sometimes I’d indulge in a Spartacus or a Strike Back, but it was always when I was eating and wanted to burn through 10 or 15 minutes (and not watch YouTube).
But back when I was younger, I was single.
To be clear, Mad Men is definitely not a show I would ever watch on my own. It’s often uncomfortable and hard-to-watch. And definitely not a solo leisure activity.
But as a couple-activity, at least for us, it’s perfect. It’s characters are richly developed and Bagel and I both find the subject matter endlessly entertaining and educational. Neither of us were there for the 1960s. But all of the period details– the mores, music, fashion, gender/race dynamics, is fascinating. Matthew Weiner really deserves a Nobel for putting that work in the world! What a genius!
By virtue of being a fictional show, we’re also able to discuss its subject matter with fellow friends as well. And what I’ve found, anecdotally at least, is that the advantage here is that, broadly speaking, the temperature of conversation is much lower when you’re discussing something fictional and imaginary as opposed to a real-life event (say, Black Lives Matter). I’ve mostly found people more generally willing to engage with different perspectives and more empathic when it’s not real people’s lives on the line. We’re talking about Don, Peter, Peggy, Joan, Roger, etc. Figments of the imagination! And that distance gives everyone some remove and breathing space to entertain and debate ideas that they normally may not in a real-world setting.
Bagel and I are currently nearing the end of Season Five where a gruesome turn in the storyline has just occurred. Obviously, I won’t ruin anything here, but that incident has sparked so much discussion for us. Cultural differences and the pernicious effects (and pressure! Omg, the unimaginable pressure) of having to constantly maintain an image as opposed to just being authentic and genuine. How something small can slowly snowball into something catastrophic. The price of deception and how it slowly chips away at the soul.
For us, Mad Men is a springboard into discussion. It raises moral conundrums and presents a properly complex world with complicated characters. Even when we disagree with specific decisions that Peggy or Joan may have made, it’s easy to see “their sides” and empathize. More largely, this is honestly, I guess, a piece today about the merits of fiction as a vehicle for building empathy and understanding. The truth is we often don’t know our values, what we truly stand for, until we’re tested. And Real Talk for a moment: In real life, we (thankfully) aren’t often tested. In quotidian life, you’re virtually never dropped into these impossible situations of monumental consequence.
And to be fair– while talk is just talk, and we don’t really know how we’ll act until we’re actually in it— watching and discussing these subjects ahead of time at least sparks the conversation so it’s somewhere on your radar. How helpful, I guess, is up to you and how honest you are with yourself. My humble suggestion is simply to not think yourself so great, smart, noble, or moral. The higher the horse, the greater distance the tumble.
Again though, even if you are uninterested in “knowing thyself,” just being able to discuss these questions and topics with your SO is so worth it. We know and understand each other when we talk with each other. And with couples, after you’ve known each other for a good chunk of time, the constant fear is that both individuals eventually drift into their own isolated orbits. Especially if both of you are professionals in different career spaces. Taking trips together certainly helps. But on those long car drives and plane flights, you still need to talk about something material and substantive. It’s easy for relationships to calcify and lose that spark. Before long, you might feel like you’re a mechanic or a logistics officer simply negotiating supply chain details (“pick up the kids at X; dinner ready by Y; what are we getting the Millers for Christmas this year?”), etc. But your SO is not your fellow mechanic! She’s your SO!
Finally, on a parting note– watching and discussing fiction shows, especially one as good as Mad Men, possesses the additional benefit of giving us a barometer to track change over time. It’s interesting to both Bagel and me how both of our opinions about Don has evolved over the five seasons so far. And it’s enormously fascinating to me to track how Bagel’s opinions of certain situations has evolved. Ideally, we’ll revisit Mad Men again in a few years to have these same discussions, but just even in the month of watching so far, I’ve found her opinions rapidly change as she’s increasingly connected the events of the show–especially the office politics element– with her own work experience. One great example: Honest to God, for four seasons, we both could not understand for the life of us what Roger actually did at Sterling Cooper. But after Lee Jr. comes to visit for that Christmas party in S4, and then in S5, we’ve both turned into the most ardent Roger fans. In Bagel’s own work experience, she’s known as least one “Roger” whom she’d constantly complained about and despised. But being able to see “the story” from Roger’s perspective has really shed new light on a whole new POV that she’d never even considered. As I’d often told her– if her “Roger” had managed to stick around at the company for so long, there must have at least some value –in some way, shape, or form– that he was delivering, even if it was invisible to her (and the rest of rank-and-file storm troopers).
Anyway, those are my two cents for the day. In other news: 2021 is here! Hooray! 🎉🎆 Very excited about the New Year– blessings and good tidings to everyone! Let’s make this next year the best one yet! 😀