Is television a window into the soul?

Recently I’ve been plagued by this question: Is it right to judge people by the television they watch?

Before you go telling me that it’s not right to judge people at all, please stop.  I don’t care how many times we’ve heard some lunatic shout “How dare you judge me!” or “What give you the right to judge my life?”

We all judge people everyday, on an almost minute-by-minute basis.

You look at the clothing that a person is wearing, the words that a person is using, and the people with whom the person affiliates. You gather this data, weigh it in your mind, and make assumptions about the person standing before you. These assumptions may not always be correct, but if you gather enough data, you can usually construct a reasonable assessment of an individual. You utilize information about their career choice, political affiliation, religious affiliation, martial status, educational background and  quality of work to further refine these judgments. You probably even make judgments based upon the newspaper the person reads and the car he or she drives.

Each of these factors provide a piece of the foundation for the overall opinion that you will ultimately form about a person.

I’m simply wondering about how much of a role television should play in this process. Perhaps a more appropriate question might be:

When forming an opinion about a person, how much weight should be placed upon a person’s choice of television programming and the overall amount of television that a person views?

I tend to think that it means a lot.

When I’ve asked this question to friends over the past week, a majority of them feel that it’s completely inappropriate to judge a person based upon television, and they quickly follow up this statement with an admission that they watch at least one show that they would not want to be used in judging them.

A guilty pleasure of sorts. One that they often refuse to even identify.

I try to explain that I am not a television snob by any means. Overall, I don’t watch much television. A lack of time and a lack of interest contribute to the infrequency of my television viewing, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t watch at all. My wife and I probably average an hour of television viewing a day, and even this seems like a lot sometimes. But I don’t really watch anything that I wouldn’t admit to watching. We tend to watch scripted dramas and half-hour comedies. We time-shift every show that we watch, so we can usually watch about 90 minutes of television in a 60 minute period, which also shortens the overall amount of television that we view on a daily basis.

Why anyone would watch live television (with the exception of sports) is beyond me.

And while we tend not to watch shows like American Idol or Survivor, I have watched them in the past and don’t see much wrong with them. I watched the first two seasons of each of these shows before growing bored and quitting on them, but reality shows of this nature, which exhibit human competition, seem perfectly reasonable to me. American Idol gives you the opportunity to listen to people sing. Survivor presents a game in which contestants attempt to survive the elements and one another in tests of skill, intelligence and endurance.

Neither show appeals to me any more, but I don’t see much wrong in watching either of them.

I will still occasionally watch reality programs like this. For example, despite my aversion to the fashion industry, I watch Project Runway, not for the pretty clothes or Heidi Klum, but for the opportunity to watch people compete on a purely creative level. Make a dress out of hardware supplies in one day? This is the kind of creativity-demanding challenge that I want to see.

The shows that I don’t understand are those that strictly depict the lives of other people, oftentimes to horrific and bizarre results. These Real Housewives shows, The Jersey Shore, the Cardashian girls show, and all the programming that takes washed-up celebrities and tries to fix them up with trollops or put them through rehab fall into a category of raw sewage that makes me want to wretch. I can’t imagine why someone would want to watch despicable and irrelevant people do despicable and irrelevant things, and so when I hear that someone watches a preponderance of these shows, I start to wonder if this is someone who I would want to spend a significant amount of time with in the future.

I’ve been told that after a busy and stress-filled day, some people like to come watch and relax to some mindless television viewing. I understand this, but what I don’t understand is the desire to watch The Jersey Shore or the Real Housewives over a scripted drama, a well-written comedy, or an interesting documentary. I fail to understand why a television show depicting the lives of socialites like the Cardashians is more relaxing than a comedy like The Office or a drama like Mad Men.

In fact, I don’t think it is. I think this desire to “relax and not think” is an excuse to watch crap.

And the amount of television that a person watches should make a difference as well. Right? Isn’t it reasonable for me to assume that I may not have much in common with a person who watches 4-6 hours of television a day?  Take away work, sleeping, eating and daily chores that often only leaves about 4-6 hours of leisure time a day for many people. If a person is filling every minute of that time with TV, we may simply not be copacetic. One of my friend’s wives watches a lot of television of this nature, and so when we get together, she invariably begins every conversation with the topic of television. While she is a perfectly nice woman, she and I would clearly not be friends if she weren’t married to my friend.

And here’s the important flip-side of the argument:

If you have read this post and feel that television shows like Mad Men and The Office and Project Runway are incredibly stupid and have begun to think that a guy who spends his time watching these shows is probably not the kind of person with whom you would want to spend time, I’M FINE WITH THAT. I know that you are judging me, and you should. The decisions that we make with our leisure time tell a lot about a person, and I’ve come to believe that television plays a role in that process. It’s not the only factor, of course. A person's desire to watch The Bachelor does not preclude me from liking them, but it’s part of a bigger picture that think is perfectly reasonable to factor in when forming an opinion about a person.

Serendipitous case in point:

A woman began running on the treadmill adjacent to my elliptical machine yesterday. She turned her television to Around the Horn, an ESPN talk show, and placed a copy of Wired magazine on the rack in front of her.

While I’m not sure how she might do on my Friendship Application, I can’t help but think based upon the choices that she had made so far, she would do quite well.

The man to my left was watching Fox News. I assume that he would not do quite so well.

Is it wrong to make these assumptions? I don’t think so.