Object 85

How to Watch TV

2054, Earth

This object, as you may know, is a television screen; one of the last dedicated sets ever made. To truly appreciate the rise and fall of this medium, it is perhaps best to walk you through the practice of watching television:

First of all, ignore anyone who tells you that TV is bad. Those people who say The Wire "kills media circles"? Utter nonsense. These TV shows were meant to be watched, not just by academics, but by all of us.

However, you do need to be well-prepared.

You'll need to tell your agent that you don't want to be disturbed. Seriously: no glyphing, no porting, no "I'm just keeping an eye on this game." Yes, it's true that a lot of historical TV can be watched with a fraction of your attention, but good TV demands all of it. If you glance away even for a second, you might miss that crucial knowing look between Don and Joan, or the brief foreshadowing of a key upcoming character in The Wire.

That's right, you'll need your brain. The best TV can be complex, multi-layered, and thoughtful, especially shows from the Age of Excess. They're one of the best ways to learn not just about the people, places, and times depicted in the story, but also about the society that the creators lived in, and, more often than not, wanted to change and improve (hello, The West Wing!).

For particularly long or complex shows, you might find it useful to call up a social graph that displays the character relationships; by the time you get to the second season of Game of Thrones, you'll be glad you don't need to keep everything in your head. On that note, it's a wise idea to ease yourself in with shorter shows such as State of Play or Firefly. And remember that TV was the most important social experience of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, so try and get your media circle to watch the same shows together — it’ll be more fun!

Something that you might find hard to get used to are the frequent advert breaks. These came as often as every ten minutes during a show and lasted for three to four minutes each. Of course, you can remove the adverts, which is handy because almost all were offensively manipulative in one way or another. However, you should bear in mind that they were the principal means by which shows made money, meaning that creators had to structure their shows around these constant interruptions and use them as punctuation — natural places for cliffhangers or scene changes.

As such, it can be useful to pause your show during ad breaks because the writers will have expected that you'd have a few minutes to digest what you'd seen and talk it over with friends. To get an even more realistic experience, use the AdExcess app, which inserts the most amusing contemporary adverts into the show you're watching (and turn on the annotations).

Don't assume that the storytelling in TV is unsophisticated just because it’s a passive medium. The Age of Excess saw a tremendous amount of innovation in narrative, exploring alternate histories, multiple points of view, flashbacks, flashforwards, not to mention transmedia and online components, audience interaction, and alternate reality games. Some of the later and larger shows can rival even today's games in their scope and ambition.

One word of warning: if you get hooked on watching TV, you might find it hard to stop. Shows such as 24 and Battlestar Galactica, with their reliably addictive cliffhangers, were designed to keep viewers returning every week; and the imagination and skill on display in shows such as Breaking Bad and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are likely to keep us entertained for generations to come. Just try not to overdo it.