The curse of must-see TV

Even fantastic shows (yes, they really do exist) are threats to our underused imaginations

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / June 28, 2011

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It happens almost every day. Someone whose judgment you trust recommends a great TV show for you to watch, either live or on DVD. It could be “Justified,’’ “Mad Men,’’ “True Blood,’’ “The Wire,’’ “Nurse Jackie,’’ Dexter,’’ “The Killing,’’ “Game of Thrones,’’ “Luther,’’ “Intelligence,’’ whatever. Not that these shows are equally fantastic — the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Intelligence’’ towers above all the others — but let’s face it: There is a lot of good TV out there.

I call it The Curse of Good Television. I am no longer accepting TV recommendations, no matter how enthusiastic. (A friend just insisted that “Men of a Certain Age’’ is worth watching, which may well be true.) Because then all you are doing with your life is watching TV, and that is not a good thing.

I’m not a deranged anti-TV zealot. I’ll admit I was tempted to raise my children without a television, and I’ll admit that I was a bit envious when all our TV-less friends watched their kids sashay into Phi Beta Kappa, because they spent their childhoods reading and thinking. But I couldn’t do it. I like TV. I can watch about 30 minutes of almost any sports event, exception made for ESPN’s stultifying College World Series. In addition, I can accommodate one TV show at a time. When “Justified’’ ended, I made the leap to “Intelligence,’’ streaming on Netflix. I watched both seasons pronto and am now in the market for a show to follow, maybe.

What’s my beef? In my book, “good TV’’ is an oxymoron. That’s my criticism of public television, which is generally much better than its commercial counterpart: It is still television. You are still sitting there, passively absorbing whatever soothing, corporatist pap the nice people at Archer Daniels Midland, Chevron, or some railway monopoly want you to hear.

Public TV is to television as Nantucket Nectars is to Coca-Cola. The “nectar,’’ a “real product with real ingredients,’’ has up to 33 grams of sugar in 8 ounces. Coke, which is quite modest about any nutritional claims for its ebony-colored swill, has 27 grams of sugar. The nectar is the PBS NewsHour. Coke is the CBS Evening News. Similar product, different pretensions.

Radio? Not the same. First off, you can do a lot while listening to radio: drive to work, bake a cake, or watch television. (Joke.) Even 21st-century radio remains a medium of dreams. I still listen to baseball games on the radio. It’s delightful and suspenseful. Ronald Reagan, a gifted fantasist, got his start creating imaginary “play-by-play’’ baseball coverage for radio, based on a telegraphic account of a faraway game.

Just last week the Journal of the American Medical Association published a so-called meta-study of the health effects of TV watching. The usual scary numbers are all there: Americans watch five hours of TV a day. (This is a Nielsen statistic, which includes everyone over age 2. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that adult Americans watch a somewhat less scary 2 1/2 hours a day.) JAMA noted that your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease rises accordingly as you watch more TV, and so on.

But that is not why I dislike TV. After all, you can exercise in front of the TV, as I did so often this winter at the YMCA, watching the soul-draining inanities of the Food Channel. A character in Jennifer Egan’s unusual novel, “The Keep,’’ articulated my problem with TV and with the armamentarium of mass distraction — smartphones, iPads, etc. — thrust upon us in recent years. Her protagonist Howard has purchased a dilapidated castle somewhere in Eastern Europe, with no telephone, TV, or Internet, and wants to create a theme park for the mind.

Howard asks: What is missing from our lives? “Imagination. We’ve lost the ability to make things up. We’ve farmed out that job to the entertainment industry, and we sit around and drool on ourselves while they do it for us.’’ He wants to make imagination “yours again, not Hollywood’s, not the networks, not Lifetime TV or Vanity Fair or whatever crap video game you are addicted to. You make it up, you tell the story, and then you are free.’’

Good TV, I salute you. I just wish there were a little less of you to go around.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is