On Watching In Prime Time As a Family

B/w photo of a Caucasian family made up of a man, woman, two teenagers and two preteens, watching television circa 1958
Public domain photo via National Archives and Records Administration. https://web.archive.org/web/20071226081329/teachpol.tcnj.edu/amer_pol_hist/thumbnail427.html

I got a flu shot yesterday. This is relevant to this story because I forgot last year, and came to regret it, the hard way, come February. After a few days of deep listlessness, I’d improved just enough for my mind to get bored with my body’s complete lack of energy, and I needed something guaranteed to pick my spirits up. I decided to rewatch The Good Place from the beginning. My 12-year-old came home from school when I had not gotten much farther than the first or second episode, and he got sucked in. His younger sister arrived twenty minutes later, watched us both watching TV in wonder, and got sucked in herself. We binged the whole three seasons together, laughing and gasping and speculating.

It was fun to have someone to share one of my favorite shows with! I’d gotten into the habit of watching TV alone, the next day after everyone had gone to school or (if the show, like Legion, was on late enough) live after everyone had gone to bed. I couldn’t exactly toss everyone out of the room in the middle of our nightly read-aloud because my show was coming on. Not in the age of streaming and On Demand.

But in the ’80s that is approximately what my mom did. Well, not at all, really. She didn’t toss anybody out of the room. She just put her shows on, and if we weren’t interested we stayed in our own rooms, but if we wandered in and got interested, we’d watch, too. There were the “family”-style sitcoms designed for this, like The Cosby Show and Family Ties, but my mom also watched a lot of police procedurals and, especially, Mystery! on PBS, where I discovered Agatha Christie. Come to think of it, Masterpiece Theater was where a lot of classic literature first piqued my interest. These shows weren’t designed for kids, and probably a lot of content went over my head, but they opened up new worlds to me anyway, worlds I could now talk about with my mother.

The Good Place has moments of “adult” humor, but much more humor that can be appreciated by anyone with a sense of humor regardless of age or experience (like I said about the Muppets the other week). Indeed, there were already individual scenes I’d thought of showing my children (the Cactus Scene from season one stands out particularly). Even better, from a parenting standpoint, there were constant lessons in ethics! What a fun, painless way to reinforce my children’s understanding of right and wrong!

There was something freeing about realizing my kids are no longer necessarily restricted to specifically-children’s entertainment. There were so many more shows and movies we could share with them! Of course, it helped if we’d seen them before ourselves, and knew for sure whether it was something our kids were ready for. Stranger Things is a fairly gruesome horror story, but it also centers on some pretty capable kids, and when our rather morbid ten-year-old expressed interest (after her extremely Max-like friend* had been talking about it), we decided it was something she could handle with us (though not so much her sensitive brother, even though he was older), and now she’s going as Eleven for Halloween. But if we hadn’t seen it ourselves first, we would have been less likely to make that call. If Stranger Things was appearing on TV one week at a time, and we were all watching each episode fresh together… well, I just can’t see it happening. But you can count on a prime time show on network TV not going too far with what it shows, even if you may find yourself awkwardly explaining a joke or two (and as for violence, “The Trolley Problem” was exactly her sort of thing, and her sensitive brother was okay with it, too, so I’m kind of confident in The Good Place that way, though I can’t speak for your kids).

Now we are three weeks into the fourth and final season of The Good Place, and we’re all discovering it together, in real time. On Thursdays, we read until nine,** and then we turn on the TV, and then we laugh and gasp and occasionally explain a reference or a plot point someone forgot. The fact that, this time, it’s as new for me as it is for them is adding a sense of alliance as we all try to guess what might happen. In between episodes 4.3 and 4.4 as we are, we’re debating who’s on the handcar? (a question you understand if you have been watching, but is totally not a spoiler if you haven’t, so we’re all good), and not limiting it to directly after the show, either. As he headed for the bus stop Friday morning, my son said out of nowhere, “Oh, I have a new theory about the person on the handcar!”

Visual media is storytelling, every bit as much as the printed word is (there’s garbage in both media, too). I’m glad that I’m getting to share more of my favorite stories with my kids now, in new formats, on new schedules. Getting to discover them together is an added bonus.


*As soon as she first came on screen, Season 2, my husband and I immediately saw our daughter’s friend in Max, and she just kept getting MORE AND MORE like her as the series progressed. At one point I figured her extreme familiarity must be because I’d seen the actress in something else, but I checked IMDb and, zip. It’s just the girl down the street. Who, probably not coincidentally, was thinking of going as Max for Halloween, which may have influenced my daughter’s own costume decision.

**And in our current book, there are characters named both “Janet” and “Michael,” which causes them both to giggle every time.

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