This week’s question comes from reader Chris Weiderman: “Sometimes I wish all of pop culture would hit “pause” for a year or so and let me catch up on everything I’ve missed. Why start in on season 1 of Homeland, when I need to be watching The Americans now?
So the question is: If all of pop culture stopped for one year where there were no new movies, TV shows, comics, or albums released, what would you use the time to catch up on? To rewatch?
This one’s tough, because there are so, so many things I want to watch that I haven’t. I’ve never seen a Terminator movie, for example. I keep opting to get things like Premium Rush from Netflix instead, for whatever reason. I think if I really have to pick, though, I’ll go with two DVD sets that I’ve owned for quite some time now but haven’t even cracked the plastic on. One is the complete series of Twin Peaks, which my now-husband bought me about a month after we started dating and I still haven’t watched, because apparently I’m a huge jerk who doesn’t know what’s good for her. The other is a Blu-ray box set I just bought that contains all of Mel Brooks’ movies. I’ve seen a couple of them, but my knowledge of his catalog is woefully incomplete, and I’d love to have a solid 18-24 hours to really rectify that.
TV documentaries! My DVR is always stuck at 40 percent because of the Frontlines and 30 For 30s that I have stockpiled. I just don’t have time for long shows like that right now and odds are that when I do have the time, I want to watch something light and silly, which is definitely not what Frontline is all about. However, both are worth watching so I would love someday to be in the mood and to have the time to finally get my DVR down to zero. And then I can finish one of the five, half-started issues of The New Yorker I have lying around.
Holy crap, could I ever use this. There was a time when I would have used this time to get caught up on books, but these days, I mostly feel like I’m missing out on TV. Being caught up on Orphan Black, Arrested Development season four, and Orange Is The New Black makes me feel like I’m more or less ready for the cultural conversation of the moment, but without that free year, I feel like I’m never going to catch up with AVC favorites Friday Night Lights, Justified, and Freaks And Geeks. (I’ve watched chunks of all three, but not more than one season of any of them.) More recently, I’ve taken flak for never having watched Spaced. Plus, Girls season two is now on DVD, and Boardwalk Empire season three is on the way. I’m really curious about the Dan Harmon-free season four of Community, which also just came out, and season two of Homeland is about to arrive. No lie, I sometimes fantasize about being laid up with a broken leg, or a minor, but debilitating surgery, just so I can watch TV like a college student again.
Used to be, a guy or gal like me could try to play every interesting or important video game that came out. Used to be, come the end of the year, a Best Games Of The Year list could be asserted with reasonable confidence. Not anymore. The rise of digital distribution and indie, DIY development has made the idea of playing everything consciously laughable, even as my subconscious strains to make the attempt. (And don’t even think about trying to keep up with television at the same time.) So I’d really love a year where I can just work my way through my Steam library. I have 400 games, many of them picked up for a couple dollars or even less in the ridiculous sales that Steam has, or in pay-what-you-want bundles. I have dozens of games I want to play “someday,” from major franchises like Dead Space to indie auteur releases like Jason Rohrer’s Inside A Star-Filled Sky. A long, stress-free break could be the only way I would get to play too many games I might love.
Do not think this is the first time this particular fantasy has ever popped into my mind. I’m as far behind on every damn thing as everybody else, but if I had the chance, I think it would do me good to spend a year getting out of my own head and listening to other people talk about the stuff I’m interested in. I have hundreds, Christ, maybe thousands of podcasts trapped on my computer, waiting to be heard and released into the ether, and stacks of DVDs of author interviews and lectures from Book TV that I stored on my DVR, and then had to delete to make room for more. If I got sick of that and found myself with extra time, I’ve always thought it might be nice to get into baseball or classical ballet, two areas where I’ve always been haunted by the suspicion that I’m missing out on some good shit. But if you asked my wife, she’d tell you that it’s not more time to get into more stuff that I really need, it’s more bookcases.
I had the pleasure and honor of seeing science-fiction author Gene Wolfe speak at Readercon in 2009, and it solidified what I’d known for a long time: His rarified vision of speculative literature is completely offset by his down-to-earth, no-nonsense grit. His best known work, the early-’80s, four-volume masterpiece The Book Of The New Sun, is one of my favorite series of any era or genre, a work of staggering depth and lyricism that bubbles up from the late Jack Vance’s science-fantasy template into a stratosphere all its own. It’s an epic that bears multiple re-readings and lingering attention to paragraphs and philosophical tangents that, at their best, untether my brain from my body. I’ve recently been doing exactly that, revisiting New Sun, but there isn’t enough time in the day to dwell on Wolfe’s prose as I’d like—and that doesn’t even take into account that I’ve regretfully never gotten around to reading New Sun’s coda, The Urth Of The New Sun, let alone the seven books that comprise its sequels, The Book Of The Long Sun and The Book Of The Short Sun. Given an entire year I’d not only read all 12 books in a single, sustained sitting, I’d lovingly live in them as I went along. (It would also prime me for the upcoming Shadows Of The New Sun anthology, which features stories set on Wolfe’s Urth written by ultra-fans Neil Gaiman and others.)
I’m surprised this is such a fantasy for so many people, because for me the idea is downright nightmarish. Thanks to album streams and free mixtapes, I’ve grown so accustomed to having a constant supply of new music piped directly to me that I already get antsy during slow weeks for new releases. As overwhelming as it can be to keep up with everything—especially in rap, where mixtapes move by at the speed of a Twitter timeline—I’d much rather live with the reality that some worthwhile music is going to slip through the cracks than in a paused world where I’d be forced to ration songs I hadn’t yet heard. But if some late-season Buffy demon did trap me in this hellish reality, I guess I would have to make the best of things by catching up on some of the dozen or so Gucci Mane mixtapes I missed, including the three simultaneous mixtapes he just dropped, World War 3: Molly, Gas, and Lean. Gucci’s mixtapes are usually uneven, but there’s at least a little gold tucked into even the worst of them. A year should be more than enough time to fish out every last nugget.
Well, there is a massive, egregious gap in my television consumption, and that is Breaking Bad. I know a lot about it and most of the major plot points, but I have never watched the series start to finish. It would be wonderful if I could pause time to catch up on it, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of stuff I’m behind on. I’ve never seen some of television’s finest classics: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, The X-Files, Twin Peaks. I haven’t watched any of the Netflix original shows, and I want to watch both Sundance original series Rectify and Canadian import Slings And Arrows.I’m still slogging my way though season one of Freaks And Geeks; and there’s such a long list of foreign television I need to catch up on, like My Mad Fat Diary and Borgen. I’m getting stressed out just thinking about this question. And this doesn’t even touch the huge amounts of literature I haven’t read yet, or the films I want to see. The hardest thing to accept is that some things are just going to fall by the wayside, but I spend most of the time pretending I’ll be able to watch, see, and read it all during this magical year.
The nice thing about being a TV critic is that I feel reasonably caught up with most TV—or have seen enough of it to know what’s not for me. Sure, if you paused time for a bit, I could think of things to get caught up on, or watch the entirety of Gunsmoke (which is available on DVD in this time-pausing universe), or something. But I wouldn’t necessarily need a bunch of time to watch TV. The problem with being a TV critic is that you fall behind on everything else. I have a virtual stack of books to read on my Kindle that I wouldn’t mind plowing through, and the last time I played a game on my Xbox was a fun, but ultimately sole outing with Red Dead Redemption in 2010. But what I’d really like to do is buy and watch the entirety of the Criterion Collection. I’ve seen plenty of the movies in it, of course, but nowhere near all, and maybe not even half (I haven’t checked). I’ll leave the rest of you to watch season four of Community, thanks. I’ll just be watching some of the greatest films ever made. And Armageddon.
My kids are 5 and 7, so their bedtime is conveniently located opposite every single TV show, and, as advertised, they eat up a lot of my free time. So I could say nearly everything everyone else has said—I’ve missed out on Breaking Bad, The Wire, every video game more adult than Angry Birds, and all but two to three movies a year since the older one was born. So there’s a lot of catching up I could do. And yet, if I had the free time to catch up on pop culture, I’m not sure I’d want to. I’d rather have that time to make pop culture. Blow the thick layer of dust off my 4-track, or finish the second half of the novel I add 100 words to every month, or finally write that sitcom about the sassy robot. Of the things I did in my pre-kids years, I miss the time I spent creating a lot more than I miss the time I spent consuming.
Oh, I think we all need more than a year, don’t we? I don’t listen to any podcasts, even though people tell me that at least half a dozen are absolutely required—who’s got that many hours a week when they haven’t even caught up on the greats of western literature? Not that I’m going to spend my free year reading, not the whole year, anyway. First on the list would probably just be some TV that I’ve missed out on over the years, including Twin Peaks and Downton Abbey and American Horror Story and The Americans and Hannibal. After I’ve gorged on all of those and done the entire Fassbinder and Herzog filmographies, then maybe I’ll finally read Infinite Jest and Ulysses. But those will require a year each, won’t they?
I watch a ridiculous amount of television, which means that films all but fall by the wayside. If I have the choice between a single film or three episodes of TV, I choose the latter nearly every time. That’s as much about professional duty as it is a personal choice. But if I had the time to do so, I’d make sure I finally watched every film on the American Film Institute Top 100. That’s not the be-all and end-all of all things cinema, but it’s certainly a good place to start. And to be sure, I’ve seen quite a few on that list already. But I’ve seen far too few to feel remotely good about myself. The holes in my film knowledge are so vast that I feel weird admitting them in public, but I just don’t have time right now to carve out a night specifically to watch Lawrence Of Arabia. Still, at least I have the good sense to feel terrible about that. A full year still won’t help me fully fill in the cinematic gaps, but after so much time spent watching the small screen, it would be great to spend a good chunk of time watching films that once adorned the big screen.
I’d think I’d settle for just having enough time to get caught up on all the media I’ve bought, but haven’t gotten around to finishing. It’s a sickness, really. Part of me knows I shouldn’t buy new stuff when the old stuff is just sitting around, especially given that most anything I buy will wind up in a dusty corner, but I love the excitement of getting a new book or movie or game, which means the backlog gets built up behind me. I own the complete Deadwood, but I still haven’t gotten past the first season. I’ve seen most of Buffy, but it would be nice to actually sit down and watch that box set all the way through; same with Battlestar Galactica. Game-wise, I really enjoyed The Last Of Us, but I’m maybe halfway through, and I’ve been there for months now. And that’s ignoring Ni No Kuni, which I’ve had for longer, or Grand Theft Auto IV,which I don’t even want to think about. Books are even worse. I know I should just accept that these things happen, and that it’s not a big deal, but it nags at me. I sometimes feel like I’m back in college, and I’ve got six months to do my senior thesis, and I keep putting it off, because “No way will that ever bite me in the ass.”
Oh, to have this time! I watch a ridiculous amount of television and have for a very long time, so my television background is pretty secure. Because of that, the thing I’d most want to do is expand my film knowledge. I’ve always been more of a multiplex movie sort of gal, with the occasional visit to the arthouse theater. But my experience with most of the scope and breadth of more serious cinema is sadly lacking. I want to consume films from all genres, cultures, and time periods; things I’ve never heard of and everything I have and has been sitting on my Netflix queue for years, and also all of the crazy and random things I’m sure to stumble upon along the way. This is partially because I love movies and know I will derive great pleasure from this, and partially so I can understand what the hell all of my more film-versed friends are talking about. (Oh, yeah, and I would watch the entire run of The Simpsons because I’ve only seen the monorail episode. I know, I know.)
First up is The Simpsons, my biggest pop culture blind spot. I’ve seen about 10 episodes, so that just leaves me with 520 to go, and I’d still have time to finish off Buffy, Homicide, and Miami Vice. I’ll read a chapter or three from A Song Of Ice And Fire every night, and I’ll finally pay off that James Joyce class by reading the one that got away (and was left unassigned), Finnegans Wake. Maybe I’ll even have time for Infinite Jest. But let’s not get too crazy, because I’d finally have time for marathon movies like Satantango and Shoah. I can watch all the TCM on my DVR and fill in my biggest film gaps (the Apu Trilogy, Greed, and Barry Lyndon to name a few). Oh, and I’d watch as many spaghetti Westerns and Czech New Wave explosions as I can get my hands on, and documentaries, and silent films. Come to think of it, I might need two years.
For about six months I dedicated myself to trying to watch a movie a day, mostly movies I’d never seen before, in an effort to deepen my film knowledge. But I would also do things like go outside and talk to people (and I have a job), so eventually this drove me so insane I had to stop. But if I could hit pause, I’d restart that project and really invest myself in it and try to keep any movie experience from feeling perfunctory, which is a problem that will develop when you’re just watching movies to fulfill some insane New Year’s resolution.
The amount of television that I watch on a daily basis is a bit worrisome, yet I’ve somehow managed to miss most of what people consider the “best” dramas like The Sopranos, Friday Night Lights, Deadwood, etc. I have no trouble watching over 150 episodes of a single sitcom in one week but I’ve been trying to finish The West Wing for five years now. Ideally, I’d spend the year catching up on those, but I have a feeling that despite telling everyone I’m finally watching The Wire, I’d still end up secretly re-watching Degrassi over and over. I suppose it would be a good idea to take a break from television in general and read every book on my shelf, or work my way through IMDB’s Top 250 (or, at the very least, finally watch a single Star Wars film), but if we’re being totally honest? There’s a good chance I’d spend this year just trying to beat Candy Crush.
Enticing as this scenario is, it also reads like an invitation to be the central character in a horrifying hybrid of The Twilight Zone’s “A Kind Of A Stopwatch” and “Time Enough At Last.” Operating on the assumption that things go awry and I’m unable, for Henry Bemis-esque reasons, to move beyond the greatest hits of The Twilight Zone catalog, I’ll hope my hearing is functioning well enough to perform a similarly completest job on some of my favorite musical artists. Through a combination of fickle tastes, thriftiness, and a general skepticism toward legal streaming and extralegal downloading, my listening habits are such that I tend to get intensely into an artist for months at a time, but it’s an intensity that only extends to the full-length albums I let myself buy. So, I’d spend this pause luxuriating in the sounds of songs I don’t know yet by musicians I already love. I would give infinite spins to post-Trans-Europe Express Kraftwerk and pre-Blueprint Jay-Z, all the while digging up overlooked Loretta Lynn singles, giving Morrissey’s solo work a chance, and completing David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. I’ll proceed with fingers crossed, hopeful that the ghost of Rod Serling isn’t waiting to greet my pop-culture selfishness with eardrums that blow within the first few seconds of Metal Machine Music. (Though that divisive Lou Reed release is probably the only record available in this fantasy, isn’t it? Damn you, Serling! There was time now! That’s not fair!)
Honestly, if given this option, I would not do it. To me, the illusion of pop culture is that if I see more, or just the right thing, then somehow more of my life will suddenly have purpose not yet imaginable. But it’s just that: an illusion. There is no singular thing that can change the course of my history, not even multiple things. The beauty of having myriad options for consumption in the year 2013 is that because we cannot consume everything, we are forced to become discerning, and we derive meaning from that which we are doing right now. To put it in cliché therapy terms, we live in the moment. To me, the real test of being a critic is not having encyclopedic knowledge bordering on “nobody wants to talk to you at the party,” but is rather to dig into whatever’s in front of you and celebrate all that it in particular offers—not compare it to some false notion of what else is out there. So yeah, I’ll probably never watch The Shield, or at least not for a while. Nor do I care that plenty of Grand Theft Auto games have come and gone. Two nights ago, I re-watched Primer for the 10th time—not because I ran out of new things to enjoy, but because I’m trying to take meaning where I have already found it, and grow from that.
Not that the flood of pop culture is really keeping me from doing this, but if I could take a vacation from American pop culture for a year, I’d travel and absorb what other nations consider their culture, pop or otherwise. When I traveled out of the country all the time a decade ago, I was always surprised at the similarities and differences between a foreign culture and ours. Nothing took me more out of my American bubble than when I was in Egypt, about nine months before 9/11. The 5 a.m. call to prayer waking me up every morning when I was in Luxor, going to a belly-dancing club in Cairo that was definitely not for the tourists, smoking from hookah pipes and drinking Turkish coffee in cafes all over the country, and just shooting the shit are all great memories. But the shared culture in any country I’ve visited is usually what resonates with me, from watching the sumo tournament on TV every day I was in Japan, to the panic over the breakup of the Spice Girls when I went to London for the first time in 1998. Thinking back to it just makes me want to experience more.
For me, this theoretical year hiatus would be dedicated to making a dent in my ever-expanding reading list. I’m constantly buying books, being given books, and adding books to my various online wish lists at a rate that is several orders of magnitude higher than the rate at which I can actually read the damn things. This is exacerbated by my tendency to set reading as my lowest pop-culture priority. At the end of the day, when it comes time to kick back and actually relax for an hour or so, it’s just way easier to turn on the TV or fire up the Xbox. (Don’t judge me; you try wrangling a toddler for 13 hours and then writing for two or three more, then tell me how much mental energy you’ve got left.) A year of time to just catch up, without the pressure to add anything new in my other areas of interest, might allow me to put a noticeable dent in the list. I’d still never finish it, but I might at least get past the shelf marked “must read.” Maybe.
I won’t say that I actually regret not having the time to absorb certain pop-culture touchstones, but I will say that I occasionally find myself feeling a little guilty when a movie comes out that’s based on a classic book, and I realize that I’ve never gotten around to reading the book because, well, I’ve been too busy watching movies. Most recently, I’ve found myself really wishing I’d read Matthew F. Jones’ A Single Shot before having seen its cinematic adaptation, because I feel like the intensity of what’s on the page is inevitably going to be compromised by what I’ve already seen unfold in front of me. As far as other mediums go, I’ll just cut to the chase and say that, when it comes to music, I wish I could take the time to sit down and listen to Bob Dylan’s complete discography from start to finish, followed by Bruce Springsteen’s, because although I respect them both as songwriters, I don’t know nearly as much about their back catalog as I should. Film-wise, I’d like to explore Terrence Malick’s filmography, which has always seemed to me to require more time to absorb than I ever have on hand. Lastly, on the TV tip, I’ve got to go with Battlestar Galactica. I certainly feel appropriately guilty that, as a sci-fi guy, I missed it the first time around and have yet to find the time to go back and discover how awesome I’m sure it is… but, dammit, there are only so many hours in the day.