Critic's Notebook: Welcome to the Age of Background TV

As content floods the era of Peak TV, there's an alternate solution to keeping up with shows: Listening to some of the them in the background while you do other tasks.
Jordin Althaus/NBC
NBC's 'Good Girls.'

One year ago, at 2 o'clock in the morning, I sat bleary-eyed at my dining room table surrounded by hot glue guns, doll house furniture and poster board dioramas, desperately trying to keep my puppet's mushy clay head from continuously falling off her chicken wire neck. In other words, I was filming a stop-motion animation. I needed one more class to finish my graduate degree and thought I'd choose a "fluffy" art elective for my final semester. (What fools these mortals be!) Hundreds of hours of fabrication and filming later produced my measly 1.5-minute magnum opus. Without a professional studio, I could only work at night to keep my lighting steady. And without an assistant, I could only mentally function with the help of NBC's Good Girls playing non-stop in the background for weeks on end.

People often ask me how I keep up with so many television series simultaneously in the age of Peak TV. Well, here's my dirty little secret: I listen to most of them in the background while I do other tasks. Far from the inert, drooling couch potato my critic's lifestyle might lead one to believe, I'm actually quite deliberate in how I manage my screen time. And frankly, I just don't have the attention span for unadulterated entertainment consumption these days. One of the essential lessons of grad school is learning what to close-read and what to skim. In a tech bubble brimming with endless content, this is also an essential skill for maintaining proximity to a mercurial zeitgeist. For many like myself, a staccato stream of storytelling fills our time from morning until bedtime, so high-stakes dialogue becomes the soundtrack to our everyday responsibilities.  

Truthfully, I have a TV show playing in the background when I'm cooking, crafting, tidying, exercising, folding laundry, washing dishes, eating certain meals and getting ready in the morning. As someone with low-level anxiety, I find this schedule helps stanch my breathless inner monologue while I keep intellectually engaged. I've even developed organizational strategies for making this format work, including knowing what types of shows to choose for this need and how to run through them efficiently without missing any important beats (a.k.a. sometimes watching things 10 minutes at a time if I have to). This isn't mindlessly flipping on the television set for background noise, but a thoughtful and systematic method for keeping up with my weekly serials and bingeable season-drops. Welcome to the age of Background TV.  

I'm sure I've scandalized the TV purists and other neurotypical folks who can keep their eyes glued to their show for an hour at a time. (Yes, I might be missing visual jokes or other sight-only quirks, but after seeing Seasons 1-25 of The Simpsons so far, I can assure you there are diminishing returns to trying to keep up with every Easter egg onscreen. Let the show serve you, not the other way around.) Watching a show in the background doesn't mean I love it or value it less than one I'd give my full attention; it just means I'm economical with my time in a culture-wide entertainment glut.

You can argue all you want about quality versus quantity, but I refuse to accept this is a diminished form of viewing. In fact, I see it as an updated form of the radio plays that kept the world entertained in the earlier part of the 20th century. Some of television's most popular genres were born on the radio — from soap operas to sitcoms to Westerns — and with the rise of podcasts and audiobooks, we still turn to aural entertainment to keep our minds occupied during otherwise droning activities. Even though television has become more cinematic and visually interesting in the last 20 years, plenty of shows retain enough of the vestigial conventions of radio to keep you occupied, including hard-landing punchlines and big emotional moments. If a show's sound design and dialogue is well-crafted enough, you can keep up with most episodes while only occasionally glancing at the TV screen.

So, what are the best methods for employing Background TV?

1. Don't try to do this with intricately choreographed and edited shows, or programs that rely heavily on a visual narrative.

Duh! This is not for a spectacle like Game of Thrones or a mindfuck like Westworld. Nor is it for a comical fever-dream like Better Things, which is too fluid from scene to scene to pick up from dialogue alone. And don't pick something that is so predicated on its actors' non-verbal performances, like Killing Eve, Fleabag or Derry Girls. I don't recommend animated series unless you're very attuned to what you're getting out of the story. (Staid, family-oriented shows like Bob's Burgers, The SimpsonsKing of the Hill and Family Guy are very different creatures from more caustic or frenetic ones like Archer, Big Mouth, BoJack Horseman and Netflix's new Tuca & Bertie.) And I think it goes without saying that if you need subtitles for something… don't put it on in the background.

2. Think airy, not scary. 

When I'm fiddling around with chores or doing my makeup, I prefer to keep things light and/or dumb. The stereotype of the housewife scrubbing away to "her stories" exists for a reason: Melodrama and camp are great for background TV. Jane the Virgin, This Is Us, Empire, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, American Horror Story and the late-great Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are heavy on Big Feelings, and thus, Big Dialogue. This method is also the most efficient way for me to keep up with my addiction to British period dramas and other frocked literary adaptations, which are typically heavier on plot than arresting staging. (Trust me, I've seen enough longing glances to last me a lifetime.) However, the best programs for Background TV are sitcoms — and the more cameras, the better. Over the last 7 years, I've been able to rewatch zippy classics like Seinfeld, Dinosaurs, Cheers, Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Roseanne and Sex and the City thanks to keeping them on mostly in the background. Historically, broad sitcoms were specifically designed to give audiences a cognitive break after a long day at work.

3. Pay attention to the pilot. 

If you're going to begin a new show with the intention of making it your next background show, offer at least the first episode your undivided attention. Get to know the visual language and narrational texture, familiarize yourself with the players and their conflicts, and give yourself a chance to make an informed decision about how you want to keep up with the show. I was sure Hulu's crime drama The Act was going to be the perfect background show until I realized how much the series depends on the multi-layered performances of its two charlatan protagonists, played by Patricia Arquette and Joey King. The inverse ended up being true of Amazon's British import Catastrophe, which may have started off with a thorny conceit, but ended up a (foul-mouthed, but backgroundable) marital sitcom.

4. The more mobile, the better

You can't just move around a 65-inch TV screen, or even a 20-inch desktop monitor. If you can train your brain to watch your favorite shows at roughly 4x6x inches, you can make this method work. My laptop moves with me from room to room when I'm home, and I will use my tablet and smartphone to watch things during travel. I even once experimented utilizing my tablet to stealthily take in The Girlfriend Experience on my walking commute, but that was a step too far into schedule maximization. 

5. Spreadsheets make the world go 'round.

If you want to optimize your background viewing, maintain Excel or Google Sheets to track your episodic or TV season progress. Keep lists of premiere dates. Cross out shows on your ultimate to-do queue. I have one speadsheet organized by days of the week, so I remember what airs on what days (and what's currently broadcasting or on hiatus). Tech geeking is work ... but it works.

I still look back on that end-of-semester animation madness fondly, as though Good Girls and I were in the trenches together: I bonded with its three leads as though we all painstakingly posed clay figures one centimeter at a time until the wee hours of the morning. Background TV has been a fixture of my life since I was little, a comfort to an only child who liked to hear people talking even when they weren't around. Sad compensation or eventual career path? You decide.