Only the lucky ones get to experience the highs and lows of human existence. Despite how special your parents insisted you were when you were a kid, some emotions are universal — happy, sad, nostalgic and heartbroken. These emotions that simmer in our core are what bonds us as humans. But emotions are delicate. The same happy you feel when you get accepted into your favorite college can easily be elicited by your two favorite fictional characters finally confessing their feelings for one another. The same deep sadness you get from failing an exam could easily be duplicated by an unexpected fatal car crash in your favorite television drama series. The cause for these emotions may change over time, but the feelings they stir within us remains the same.
I remember being devastated by Troy and Gabriella’s separation in “High School Musical 2,” which, over time, evolved into the way I felt when Nick and Jess broke up that one time in “New Girl.” Different causes, different stakes, same pit of emptiness. In hindsight, sure, I can now judge things more realistically. Troy and Gabriella probably should have gone separate ways.
When I watched “La La Land” with my early-teenage sister, I could tell I was old when I appreciated the realistic ending while she was heartbroken over it. At her age, I would’ve likely felt the same way, but now, I can’t even imagine being so hung up over something that wouldn’t have been right. I tried to help her appreciate the reality behind it, but to her, it was a cinematic tragedy. Though we’re only four years apart, there was something in our age gap that made us just different enough to see Mia and Sebastian’s amorous demise in opposite ways.
I’m not sure when the switch happened. Maybe it’s because I realized “Gossip Girl” was feeling a little incestuous, or more practically, maybe it was because sometimes in my later teenage years, I was given a glimpse of what adults have been threatening me with my entire life: the real world. All of a sudden, I was expected to know not just my career path, but also my five-year plan and how to avoid scams. Life wasn’t so glamorous anymore, and I started to watch television in the same way.
Call me jaded, but “The Office” became funniest when I realized that coworkers could really be that stupid and offices really do waste that much time on a daily basis. “Parks and Recreation” is at its peak when you realize that characters like Councilman Jamm exist in real life and make up over half of Congress. When shows can cleverly mimic the chaos we experience on a daily basis, it becomes more real to us the longer we live.
Still, everything feels like a finality. When I was younger and mass-consumed “Riverdale”-esque shows thinking that they were the epitome of television, nothing else appealed to me. I’ll watch shows like this for the rest of my life, and it’s all I really need, I thought. Embarrassing, but there’s a reason why I can barely remember the shows I was addicted to when I was a teenager. They were iterations of one another, and looking back, they were as micro in perspective as we are when we’re younger.
I suppose I can’t bash on these shows entirely. For teens, they provide comfort and an escape from mundane life. Their impracticality isn’t exactly what teenagers are worried about when they watch them. For a lot of teenagers, raw emotion is really all they need to feel when they watch television. All they need is a stretched image of the life that they secretly hoped they could live — a high school drama they could vicariously live through, despite the absurdity of it all.
There’s a side of me that wonders whether there’s any nostalgia tied into this mess. I rewatched plenty of shows too many times, and while I don’t get the same intensity of reactions that I did when I watched it for the first time, I’m temporarily brought back to the headspace I was in at that moment. There are few shows that bring me back in the same way that music might, mainly because we listen to music to match our emotions, while we often watch TV to make us feel emotions. Most of the time, I watch television in random places: In bed, on the treadmill, when I’m supposed to be working. Watching a show straight through means that no matter what mood we’re in, the show can be factored into our schedule. When we listen to music, or even watch movies, it’s more of an emotional commitment — most people carefully tailor them to act parallel with how we feel in an instance.
I realize I may have contradicted myself multiple times throughout the duration of this recorded stream of consciousness. The reality is that television serves different purposes in our life: a distraction, white noise, a mood booster, an excuse to bond with a loved one. As we continue to grow older, our search for more doesn’t stop with television, and it likely never will. This doesn’t mean shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or “The Bachelor” lose all value — even a trash fire is entertaining sometimes — but it will never be as satisfying as a show that draws you in from the deepest parts of your core and keeps you there for reasons that you might not be able to explain. When a creator loves their show, you can tell. And that care is what we search for when we’re older, because it means that our microscopic presence in the world is acknowledged. We’re seen.