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When I was a kid, my mom was determined to make me a “reader.” By age 8, I was reading multiple children’s books a week. An author named Matt Christopher was my favorite — he wrote children’s sports books with great titles like The Kid Who Only Hit Homers. I positively inhaled them. To this day, I can speed-read an adult novel in just hours. … I retain very little, and it means I have to bring multiple hardcovers on a long plane ride, but reading has always fed me. Ever since I was young.
And if reading fed me, television was my dessert.
As I got older, my parents began to let me watch two hours of primetime television a week (we weren’t Amish, please don’t get the wrong impression of my parents; I was already showing early signs of potential TV addiction, and they were right to set limits).
Knight Rider and The A-Team were my dominant two TV choices. But as I got older (and the rules loosened), my tastes expanded.
When The Wonder Years‘ Kevin Arnold got to first base with Winnie Cooper, it was like I’d gotten to first base with her.
The theme song from Growing Pains is locked in my brain for eternity.
Rudy coming down the stairs singing like an old man in The Cosby Show slayed me. (I know, I’m sorry.)
When Dudley almost got molested by a creepy bicycle shop owner on Diff’rent Strokes, I freaked out and had nightmares for a year (for my money, that episode stands the test of time as the most bizarre/creepiest/unexpected thing ever on network TV).
And “network” TV was what these disparate moments all had in common. All the shows that I loved aired between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on three (and eventually four)different networks. For me — forever — CBS will always be channel 2. NBC is 4. ABC is 7. And Fox (depending on what coast I’m on) is either 5 or 11. The network TV shows of this period, and the time periods that followed, had another thing in common: They were for everyone, and everyone watched them. Watching TV back then was a collective experience. Our country experienced these moments live, in real time. No DVR, no delayed viewing — the best chance you had of catching something after it aired was either via repeat or a noble (but usually failed) attempt by your father to record a show on a VHS tape.
As I got older, the network shows continued to hold a draw for me — Cheers and Married With Children, NYPD Blue and ER, Lost and The West Wing (my all-time No. 1) — these were shows that formed my adult view of what American television could be. As our world expanded and cable (and eventually streaming) came into play, my tastes obviously evolved with the country’s. The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, all the shows — they are all binged en masse in my house. They are the coolest shows, the sexiest shows, and they deserve to be in every way.
But for me, there will always be a draw to having a slightly less “cool” show on, say, good ol‘ channel 4. You don’t need an app to watch it; you don’t even need cable, really — just an antenna if that’s all you’ve got. Network TV is a place where populist material — something everyone can relate to, enjoy or admire — can, on occasion, transcend and cut through the cultural landscape and become a thing unto itself. So that’s the draw of network TV, an itch I’ll keep trying to scratch until they shut the whole thing down.
Because who knows: Maybe there’s a weird little kid out there choosing to watch my show with their allotted TV time. A weird little kid who sees in my show what I saw in Knight Rider: a really cool f—ing car that can talk and solve crime … hold on, this analogy is getting away from me.
You know what I mean — at least if you grew up in the ’80s you do.
This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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