Let’s say it started in November 2016. The nation had just elected a heel television character from NBC’s middling 2000s prime-time lineup in the greatest upset in modern political history. After letting out my own pent-up rage at the Democratic Party for its part in allowing this to happen and finding the resolve necessary to walk away from the internet around 4 a.m., I didn’t pass out right away. I watched roughly 45 minutes of the film Sausage Party, a feature-length cartoon musical about anthropomorphic supermarket items trying to have sex with each other.
I’ve relived this same cycle just about every day since. To cover the Trump administration and this Congress every day, which encompasses about five or six major news cycles, is to embed oneself in chaos and trauma. It begins around 7 o’clock in the morning, when our president sets the daily global agenda by amplifying whatever dingbat nonsense he heard on Fox and Friends. It continues throughout the day in Congress, monitoring the meticulous, cynical details of the legislative process. Twitter is pure hyperbolic mania, at all times. Whenever my workday is “over,” to the extent that it ever is, my appetite for watching, say, a provocative art film, reading nonfiction, or starting the latest drab prestige television masterwork is zero. I simply refuse to consume culture that is seriously meaningful in any way at all.
I survive now on an undiluted diet of escapism. If something is going to “stay with me” for more than 45 seconds after it concludes, if a single gear in my brain is going to turn—thanks, I’ll pass. Give me the trash. And so I’ve been thankful over this past year to live in a country that serves an all-you-can-eat buffet of anti-thought to coincide with its droplets of “golden age” programming.
Say I’ve just spent a day asking members of Congress what they would do if the president fires the special counsel investigating him, his campaign, and his family. It’s not like, at the end of this day, I’m going to rush home to make that fourth or fifth stab at Finnegans Wake. No, I’m going to rush home to watch, say, the Travel Channel’s Food Paradise, a program that showcases people eating unhealthy food at restaurants around the country. There are themes to each hourlong episode: Steak Paradise, Cheese Paradise, Pizza Paradise, etc. An overbearing ham of a voice actor narrates. You know that quasi-numb feeling you get in your extremities after eating McDonald’s? You get that feeling watching Food Paradise. I have seen almost every episode. “Look at that CHEESY GOODNESS!” the narrator says when some concoction of cheese and cheese fat layered atop pork and cheese sauce and bacon comes out of the oven. “Holy cow,” I say, brain-dead and laughing. The joke is that I loathe myself.
Aside from watching people eat junk food, I also enjoy watching people purchase real estate. Though there’s an embarrassing amount of junk-food-eating content on cable television, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the real estate offerings. Turns out there have been a full 139 seasons of HGTV’s House Hunters, the anchor of the genre.
Because I would lose my congressional press pass if I screamed at all of the senators and members of Congress I want to scream at during the workday, I take that aggression out on televised couples purchasing real estate. They really know how to pick ’em at HGTV. A standard episode involves a couple interested in buying a waterfront property in Orange County, California, with five bedrooms, a pool, a private theater, an 800-square-foot en suite master bathroom, a three-car garage, a putting green, and several additional acres on which their three yippy spoiled dogs might roam. What’s their budget? “We can go up to $350,000 if we find one we really like,” the couple, damn them, inevitably says. “OH, SHOULD BE FUCKING EASY TO FIND THAT,” I howl at my television. I have watched hundreds of episodes of House Hunters this year. I also recently watched the seniors’ golf tournament in Hawaii, for the scenery.
The picture is far grimmer moviewise. I have not seen, say, The Florida Project, but I did indeed spend $19.99 on the iTunes Store to buy—I would’ve had to wait several weeks to rent!—the latest installments of both Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers. When you’re not buying movies so much as buying 2½-hour installments of disengagement from the world, $19.99 isn’t so bad. A Christmas Prince knocked off another 90 minutes. Bad Moms, which I watched by myself when my girlfriend was out of town, roughly the same. I bought, some years ago, a 50-movie Janus Film collection of “essential art house” cinema. Not touching that anytime soon. Could provoke thoughts.
2018 will be worse than 2017, and I am sure my cultural consumption will find a way to decline further in quality with it. “CHEESY GOODNESS!” will be Shakespeare compared to what I’m watching after work once the first-strike war against North Korea begins. I am going to need Hollywood to break new depths, perhaps with some hybrid of these horrors. Optimus Prime eating four-cheese bacon pizza while riding a surfboard, or something. Run with it. If not that? I may just have to press the red emergency button and watch reruns of The Celebrity Apprentice.
Correction, Jan. 29, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Finnegans Wake. The title does not contain an apostrophe.