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One day, out of the blue, my husband decided that we needed a new television. We had until then been a minimalist TV family. We had one small set on the third floor of the house that had an indistinct static-y picture from which the color capriciously came and went. It was the kind of set on which the opening ceremonies of the Olympics looked a lot like Mardi Gras.

But things were about to change, big time. First, my husband went off to Circuit City and didn’t return for several hours. When he finally arrived home, he had a “television consultant” in tow. Said consultant, provided courtesy of Circuit City, looked to be around 15 years old. He went with us up to the third floor, looked around, and announced that “it could work.”

“What could work?” I asked.

“Whatever you have in mind,” he shrugged.

That apparently was what my husband had been waiting for. The next thing I knew, he had dragged me to Circuit City to survey the 50-inch plasma screen TVs.

“Why can’t we go with a 42-inch set?” I tried to reason with him. But I might have been talking to the wall — or rather, to the televisions that lined the wall. My husband wasn’t listening. He was gazing in a besotted manner at the 50-inch sets.

“You see — they’re not that big,” he declared, indicating the various models around us. It is true that when you see about 10 50-inch sets in a cavernous space like Circuit City, positioned cleverly next to a few 60-inch sets, they don’t look all that big.

The salesman, another youth with whom my husband had apparently bonded, now piped in with a factoid: “The biggest regret people have when they buy a TV is that it isn’t big enough” — someone in the Circuit City marketing department had obviously hit on this line with the understanding that  “regret” resonates powerfully with the middle-aged male buyer. “With an expense of this magnitude,” continued the salesman, who looked like he might be the younger brother of the TV consultant, and thus about 13, “you don’t want to have that kind of regret.”

I gave this 13-year-old a withering look, which he understood as a sign that I was on to his having snookered countless men my husband’s age, since he slunk away muttering that it was, after all, our decision.

“So what do you think?” asked my husband. But he had no desire to know what I thought. He had set his heart on a 50-inch flat, no-glare screen with a cabinet-style stand for the storage of what presumably would become our vast library of DVDs. He was only giving lip service to my input with regard to whether it would be a Samsung or a Panasonic.

The 50-inch plasma TV was purchased, and I can report that it is too big for the space (though my husband says that it’s perfect). One of the guys who carried it up the three flights of stairs came close to having a heart attack and had to lie for a good half hour on the third-floor couch with a wet washcloth on his forehead. Our concern for his health was such that I didn’t make a fuss about the tear in the wallpaper caused by the corner of the 50-inch TV as it was maneuvered up the narrow third-floor steps.

So there it is, this monstrosity, set in the midst of our Victorian attic. It took a week, of course, to get the thing running. There were the requisite calls to Comcast and Circuit City so as to coordinate the set with the cable service (it’s de rigueur that the wrong wire be installed, so that you have to visit the Comcast store and yell at the Comcast lady, who simply tells you to calm down, she understands your frustration, but what can she do?). The Circuit City set-up guy, who, unlike his infantile predecessors, had an aura of sagacity about him, spent an hour pressing buttons and answering in monosyllables as he set up the remotes (plural) that would control this vast ship of a TV. Although he presented the remotes to me like Yoda would to Luke Skywalker, I obviously did not have the magical gift required, because, despite his assuring me that it was all very simple, I now spend 20 minutes fiddling with the two remotes until a picture unaccountably springs onto the screen.

The picture itself, I acknowledge, is a large one. That it is also a good one, I take on faith from my husband, who is constantly remarking on how the picture pops wonderfully out at you and how dynamic and crisp it is. “Look at that,” he says, “isn’t that something?” If you asked me if the brush stroke on a Van Gogh painting is something, I will say yes, but when it comes to television, I’m not inclined to be discriminating. Part of the problem may be that I’m blind in one eye and thus the dimensional aspect of Regular vs. High Def is lost on me. Part of it may be that I’m simply blocked in this area.  If I turn on, say, America’s Biggest Loser and see a fat guy on a treadmill, I don’t care to see the difference between him in High Def on our 50-inch screen or him in a smaller, static-y incarnation on our old rabbit-eared set. In both cases, it’s a fat guy on a treadmill — end of story.

One of the hardest things we’ve had to deal with regarding the new television is explaining it to our friends. For years they’ve had to listen to us go on and on about our television stoicism. Though no doubt extremely annoying, it gained us points in the virtue department. I mean owning a small, cable-less television is pretty much on a par with taking in a non-English speaking exchange student from a Third World country. But whatever edge we had in being able to say — “I’m afraid we never saw The Sopranos; you see, we don’t have cable” — has now been lost. We not only have regular cable, we have premium cable, and we have it on a humongous screen. I have tried to scramble for excuses for this shift from TV sparsity to TV profligacy (akin to going from a moped to a Hummer) — “My eyes are failing me; I’m also into large-print books;” “We got cable for the History Channel;” “We had a discount coupon for Circuit City” — but none of those passes muster. It is now fully revealed that we are hopelessly bourgeois and that my husband is suffering from something that Freud would have a name for.

Even our kids have not thanked us for the new TV. True, watching it delights them, but it also reminds them of all those years of television deprivation when they were embarrassed to invite their friends to the house, when watching the Super Bowl involved trying to figure out which team was which through a haze of static. I believe I heard words like “perverse” and “sadistic” muttered under these children’s breath when the thing was unveiled.

I have to admit that there have been advantages to the television. I can now talk knowledgably with the TV-savvy about this HBO series or that AMC series. I can bond with the fogeys who watch Turner Classic Movies or anyone inclined to discourse on, say, Asians in early talkies. I can watch the History Channel and the Discovery Channel (though not as much as I say I do), and get some sense of the gladiatorial splendor of football, formerly lost on me. However, these advantages are offset by the fact that the set, like all elaborate gadgets, is prone to dysfunction. Our old set was comforting in offering poor reception while always working in some fashion. This one is more dramatically temperamental. It occasionally refuses to exhibit a picture, which results in the frantic pressing of buttons on the two remotes, profanity-laced tantrums on the part of my husband, and, as a last resort, “rebooting.” This operation requires some twenty minutes to perform and usually occurs in the middle of a favorite show, fortunately available to be seen later “on demand” (for every inconvenience there is a compensation — which is what makes possible, I suppose, the shuffling progress of civilization).

I have always had a distracted fondness for television. As a chronic insomniac, I can’t help but feel grateful to the medium. I have also gone through periods of intensive television watching, when all other forms of mental exertion seem too taxing. But the size and complexity of this set has had the paradoxical effect of making me think twice before I trek upstairs to watch it.  It means doing battle with the two remotes and making a commitment, not just to turning on the thing but to choosing what to watch from among the more than 500 channels now available (and on which, as the saying goes, there is still nothing worth watching). As I see it, the best thing about the new TV may be that I don’t have the energy for it. More often than not, I decide it’s a lot easier to read a book. • 2 September 2008



Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her latest book is Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation (Princeton UP).