In a workplace, other people are there in an ambient way — they drift in, they drift out, there’s an occasional did-you-see-this exchange between tasks. The TV of People doesn’t work that way: Your switch is either on or off. People become episodic. Someone is present until their little rectangle winks off and they disappear. Show’s over.
What distinguished TV, when it entered people’s homes in the middle of the 20th century, was that it created a second world in your living room, one that contained all of the greater world within it: baseball stadiums, theater stages, the African savanna. It’s hard to see it this way several decades of commercials and game shows later, but it really was a kind of magic.
When that secondary world by necessity becomes the primary one, as it did for so many of our waking hours this year, that relationship changes. Suddenly, we’re spending much, or most, of our time somewhere other than where our bodies are.
After enough time in virtual classrooms and online staff meetings, watching a TV drama is less an escape, exactly, than a change of scenery, one visual overlay replaced with another. (How many people, starting this spring, spent a day in “the office,” then closed that tab, opened another, and spent the evening in “The Office”?)
As a TV critic, I used to be the only one in the family who spent the day working at home, glued to screens. Now the whole household — two telecommuters, one distance-learning high school student and another home from college — is together-apart, jacked into four separate Matrixes.
At the end of the day, if everyone’s free, we binge a show. (We finished “Dark” and “Game of Thrones” and just started on “Mad Men.”) It’s fun, because watching a great TV show is fun, but also for the experience of making comments and dissecting an episode when it’s done. Being four people in a living room together, in this year, is as much an escape as visiting Westeros.