No one is ever really gone
In connecting personal experience to much bigger cultural observations, the 12 essays collected in Little Boxes: 12 Writers on Television (Coffee House Press) transform the highbrow and lowbrow television of the 80s, 90s, and early 00s into an instrument through which we can examine ourselves and our culture. There are essays about the shows my friends and I grew up with, like Twin Peaks, The Cosby Show, Dawson’s Creek, and how these shows and others reveal our emotional connection to music, the pain of divorce and shattered ideals, the imagined demarcations between prettiness and intelligence, sexuality and identity.
Anthologies like Little Boxes are like variety shows. They’re meant to contain something for everyone, which almost always means there are pieces you’re really going to like, pieces you’re going to enjoy a little bit less, and pieces you just aren’t going to connect with. For me, there are three clear standouts: Ryan Van Meter’s “The Hourglass,” T Clutch Fleischmann’s “An Explanation of Music,” and Danielle Evans’s “Sick Sad World: Watching Daria in 2016.”
Days of Our Lives becomes, in Van Meter’s essay “The Hourglass,” a way to explore time and grief. Van Meter started watching the show with his grandmother when he was a child, and so has grown along with its characters – which means they’re real to him, despite their improbably tumultuous lives, and despite the barrier the television screen allegedly throws up between them. They’ve got regular jobs, like the people Van Meter knows, and they live in a town that seems familiar, almost like a memory. He remembers his grandmother catching him up on the gossip in Salem: “And so I understood, even as a child, that part of the point of watching a soap opera was that it was fleeting, almost as though it were a live performance. The stories were a thing we were chasing, and if we didn’t catch them, something would be lost.” He connects his experience to the experiences of other Americans, arguing that most people start watching daytime soap operas because someone in the house, usually older, is already a fan. For Van Meter, Days of Our Lives is a familial tradition handed down from grandmother to mother, from mother to son. The show is so powerful because it connects Van Meter to his grandmother even after she passed: to this day, he still finds himself watching the show in the kitchen, muttering “I hate Jennifer,” because that’s what his grandmother did, and because, like his grandmother, he really does hate Jennifer.
T Clutch Fleischmann is another writer who found substance in what lots of people would consider frivolous or ridiculous. In “An Explanation of Music,” Emmanuelle in Space becomes more than soft-core porn—it becomes one of those classic coming-of-age stories, about finding one’s identity. Fleischmann, who is transgender, explains what it was like growing up in “the small-town, no-cable world of Middle America, mid 1990s.” Which, in short, is: limited. When the family finally does get cable, and the cable company accidentally adds Cinemax to the family’s plan, Fleischmann finds solace in this shapeshifting sexual creature: “It might seem disingenuous to call Emmanuelle the first trans person I ever saw, but that is who she was to me.” Emmanuelle was a powerful human who taught space aliens all they needed to know about sex. She bore all the sexual wisdom of her species. The one who was looked to for counsel. Watching Emmanuelle in Space, Fleischmann learned, too – about bodies, about desire, and about losing the self in feeling. When they look back to those days of puberty, it is the instinct that takes over in the face of not-knowing that seems so awe-inspiring: “The body is the answer,” Fleischmann writes, “because the pursuit of knowledge is the pursuit of not knowing, even if only for one orgasmic second.”
“Sick Sad World: Watching Daria in 2016” is Danielle Evans’s essay about watching the late 90s-era MTV sitcom Daria in the immediate wake of the 2016 presidential election. In this devastating essay, Evans describes her mother’s work for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She did her job despite the fact that, while pregnant, she was followed to an NAACP meeting by gun-toting Klan members. After describing the incident, Evans asks herself, and us, “What kind of country lets the Klan follow a pregnant woman around and thirty-three years later tells her child it resents every step she’s taken forward?” Evans understands that most people who voted for Trump are not neo-Nazis. What scares her, though, is “the traction of underlying beliefs,” including “how many people would . . . reserve the full rights of citizenship only for white Americans and a handful of people who are willing to perform for them and prove they’re the right kind of other.” She sees this possibility exemplified in Jodie Landon, a black character on Daria who was valedictorian, a student council member, the yearbook editor, and the homecoming queen. Evans describes episodes that reflect the pressure Jodie felt to be a representative, to be the perfect human. Jodie’s parents pushed her to do well: “the show was explicit that Jodie’s parents expected her to take a different path than theirs, that they had been moving in a direction they thought of as forward.” In the end, though, Jodie is sick of playing the part. She’s tired of trying to convince people of her worth. As Evans puts it: “there was in the writing of her some acknowledgment that living your life as an audition for acceptance and approval is exhausting.”
Socially, already, we often find it comfortable to discuss and organize our understanding of our lives and relationships in terms of television. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing, but it is a thing. And as long as any conversation between three or more adults can be sure to turn to television at some point, the essays in Little Boxes add some appreciable heat to the glow of the pale blue light coming from the foot of the bed, the living room wall mount, the recess above the Frigidaire.
header image: "the tv wall at east jesus, niland, ca," kevin dooley / flickr