Last week a friend of Liza’s, a delightful and studious young woman, was over for a visit. As we hung out around the dining room table the talk turned to the most recent season of American Idol. Much to Liza’s shock, our young guest confessed she had never seen the show, announcing she “didn’t have time for TV.” “Oh my dear,” I responded, “the rule in our house is that there’s always room for ice cream and there’s always time for TV.” My proclamation was greeted with smiles from Kelly and Liza and nervous laughter from Liza’s friend, as if she didn’t quite know what to do with the knowledge that we were an unabashedly TV-loving family. Later we chuckled over her reaction, but it got me thinking about my lifelong love affair with TV and how at times it’s an addiction I hide like my love of Little Debbie Donut Sticks.
When I was a kid, growing up on an island, with much older siblings, I was on my own quite a bit. Fat, awkward, and constantly confused by the fast friendships of kids my own age I discovered a new set of friends on the sitcoms, game shows, and buddy cop dramas of the 70s and early 80s. They were always there for me when I’d come home from a day of being called Elephant on the playground. I’d fix a snack (of course) and settle in for an afternoon of Hollywood Squares and Match Game (looking back on my young fascination with Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly is it any wonder I grew up to surround myself with gay men?). If I was lucky there would be a Star Trek repeat on, and then following dinner I could settle down with the CBS comedy line up of Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda, the ABC Saturday night one-two punch of Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I read TV Guide’s like they were novels. I could explain in detail who had replaced whom in the squad room of Barney Miller or the kitchen of Mel’s Diner. I stayed up late crying the night Carol Burnett went off the air, and lived for the Emmy’s or better yet the fabulousness that was the Battle of the Network Stars. To the fat lonely girl on the island waiting for her brother and sister to come home from college, these characters became my friends. I knew them better than I knew the girls who sat around me in grade school or junior high, with their alligator shirts tucked into their khakis. I felt sure that while these girls would never understand me, it was ok because at home my real friends waited: Julie and Barbara, the teen daughters on One Day at a Time, or Kelly, Jill, and Sabrina, those angels of Charlie. I knew that Starsky and Hutch, or Kirk, Spock and Bones could rescue me from anything, but most of all from the crushing weight of my loneliness as all around me my friends developed social lives and worldly ways that left me baffled. I wanted a best friend who would run through a burning building for me like Johnny would do for Roy or a best friend that would make me lose my composure the way Conway did to Korman. I wanted someone love me the way Luke loved Laura, or heck, even the way Mike Brady loved Carol (talk about acting!).
My clandestine love affair with TV continued in the safe confines of my family until I went to college. While I was happy to escape my tiny town, I was still that shy fat girl nervous about making friends – so I took the best ones I had with me. Armed with my tiny 13 inch black and white TV, I entered my dorm room where I was alarmed to find my roommate (who would actually become one of my best friends and stay so ‘til this day) was an athletic type, majoring in science and clearly not one to have time for television. I continued to nurse my addiction in secret, sneaking in shows when she was out of the room or at the library studying. Time and a bit of maturity intervened though and as I spent more time in rehearsals I spent less time with my TV friends. And it was finally in college that I met Joe. Joe was that best friend I’d been waiting for, that person who cracked me up with a look or a word, but who more delightfully could also work references to Shirley Hemphill, (the sassy waitress on “What’s Happening?”), name all the kids on Eight is Enough, and most of all would so wonderfully play Charles Nelson Reilly to my Brett Summers. (And while I’m fairly sure either of us would run into a burning building for the other I hope we never have to find out). With Joe, it wasn’t weird that I knew that former Broadway hoofer Betty Garret played Laverne and Shirley’s landlady or that the youngest girls on Little House on the Prairie were played by the Greenbush twins. In fact, my secret love affair with TV, which once marked me as a major high school loser, became something I could celebrate with Joe. Nearly twenty-five years later, we can still make each other laugh at inappropriate moments just by invoking Bea Arthur or quoting our favorite Carol Burnett movie spoof (which we feel strongly was “Mildred Fierce”, even more so than “Went with the Wind”). I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t found Joe and I can’t even imagine how grim life would be without him.
In my youth once a show had aired it was over – until the summer repeats, and the excitement of syndication. But in my early post-divorce days, feeling lonely and scared I discovered a wonderful new development. My 70s shows were out on DVD and they were all there for the taking on Netflix! I’d get Liza settled to bed and hang out with a few Wild Wild West episodes or Starsky and Hutch, (who really always were my go-to guys). They connected me to a time when my problems could be solved with a good cry in my mother’s lap or a walk with my dad and their familiar opening credits were like visual comfort food. Now, comfortably ensconced in my mid-forties and on the cusp of a new life married to Kelly, I still love my TV. And while Kelly will occasionally greet one of my TV references with her patented “nope I didn’t see that I had a LIFE in high school,” I know she understands. We’ve worked our way through seasons of Mad Men and Big Love and House, and don’t even get me started on all the incarnations of the Real Housewives My love affair with television is perhaps one reason why I, unlike many moms my age, don’t fret about Liza watching TV. We’ve cuddled together for nine seasons of American Idol, shared popcorn during our Sunday night Amazing Race nights and recreated the best musical numbers from that week’s episode of Glee I used to turn to TV to find friends or a little comfort, but those early days in front of our Panasonic did something else for me – it helped me take life less seriously, made me a force to be reckoned with at pub trivia nights, honed my comic timing and gave me a lifetime of zingers. So fire up the set my friends and enjoy. There’s always time for TV.