Even when I was little, I was flummoxed by friends and relatives that would keep the TV on in the background: are you watching or not? Why add noise to the world? I held onto that point of view for decades, but now, after three years of living alone, I find myself soothed by the sounds of Liz Lemon's misadventures unfolding in the next room...
I didn't grow up with much television. Sesame Street, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, and nature documentaries when I was little and I Love Lucy and Dr. Quinn when I got a bit older, all watched with my parents or grandma. Oh, and PeeWee's Playhouse, which my dad loved. It's not like we were an anti-TV family, it was just a small part of how we spent our time, enjoyed in discreet, intentional chunks. By high school I'd discovered the joys of watching NewsRadio and Seinfeld while eating dinner- I had tons of extracurriculars so would often get home too late to eat with my parents and much-younger brother- a combination I love to this day. In college, the only thing my delightful roommates did that confused me was to keep the television on while studying. My brain simply doesn't work that way, I guess. Until about age 30, TV was something you watched, and then you stopped watching.
And then I lived alone for a few years. The walls of my studio apartment are thin, so I often had the cozy sounds of my neighbors' family life to keep me company. They speak predominantly in Spanish, and though I was near-fluent in high school, I've forgotten enough so that I can just enjoy the sound of their conversations, without knowing all their business. But still, there are long stretches of quiet, and while I love peace and quiet, sometimes I want more of that coziness.
That is where the wonder of commercial-free television-watching options comes in. I can put on 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, or my beloved NewsRadio on Netflix, and let the sweet sounds of Jimmy James soothe me as I cook dinner or clean my closet. I've watched all the episodes so I know what's going on without having to concentrate, and without commercials, there's nothing to jar me out of my meditative state. I recently stayed with a friend and tried this trick with regular TV (did you know that Friends and Sex & The City are basically on round-the-clock?!) and it did not go well. The frequent commercial interruptions made me feel all twitchy, like mental motion sickness. I was never able to relax into the task at hand, and of course all the commercials were astoundingly loud and brash, after years of commercial-free viewing. (You can often catch commercial-free episodes of Seinfeld on Crackle, Gilmore Girls on WB, and Hulu sometimes puts just one longer commercial at the beginning to ignore while you're gathering your drinks and snacks. Please share your other favorite viewing options!) I ended up turning off the television, and pulling up an old favorite on my laptop. Kneading pizza dough, with G.O.B. growling in the background, and no commercials to interrupt the mood? Modern bliss, for a moment.