Turning On — And Tuning Back In

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After a painful divorce, novelist Ann Packer learned how to make peace with the past — one television show at a time

In the late 90s I saw a movie about a group of lonely, single Danes who meet in an Italian class and slowly, slowly begin to form connections with each other. It was a sweet, earnest movie, the kind that stays with you more as a feeling than a plot or group of characters. What stayed with me was a line of dialogue. One of the characters says, of his (or her? I don’t remember) wish to have a partner, that in life it’s not so much a great passion that you need as it is, simply, someone to eat pasta with. At the time I was struggling in my marriage, and I wondered about that. Maybe it’s that simple, I thought. Someone to eat pasta with.

When my husband and I separated in 2002, I was in the middle of promoting a new book: I was traveling a lot, tired, and of course reeling from the changes in my personal life. The main change, practically and psychologically, was the fact that my children were gone half the time. In between stops on my book tour and periods when the kids were with me, I lived in an empty house, and I hated it. For distraction, I had stacks of books, all the magazines that had arrived while I was away, piles of newspapers. (Many years earlier, before I was a parent, I had confessed to a friend that I viewed reading the Sunday New York Times as my job. That is, I could not visit her for a weekend and just skip it that week; we had to track down a copy even if it meant driving from drugstore to drugstore. Needless to say, once my kids arrived, my employment as a reader of the Sunday Times resembled that of a temp worker in a down economy.) I had plenty to read, and yet I couldn’t.

Friends urged me to relax, order takeout, watch TV. During my marriage, my husband and I had been very devoted fans of a few TV shows:  Twin Peaks, ER, The Sopranos. We had watched the first season of 24 with religious fervor, and as this was before the invention of TiVo, we had to be on the couch at 8:59, waiting; we didn’t trust our VCR with so important a job.

But now, alone, I couldn’t watch TV. I would turn on one of our old shows, watch for a few minutes, and wonder what I’d ever seen in it. New series began, and though I heard they were good, some even very good, I had no appetite for any of them. I joined Netflix, ordered my first three movies, and then let those red envelopes sit on my countertop for eight or nine months before sending them back and canceling the subscription.

This might have gone on indefinitely, but a friend mentioned one evening that he’d rented The Wire and was watching it compulsively:  two, three, even four episodes at a sitting. He was a single guy, never married; I figured it was different for him. But he kept urging me on, and finally I rejoined Netflix, ordered up Season 1, and got addicted. Over the course of perhaps six weeks—I remember I started around Thanksgiving and ended just after New Year’s — I watched all four of the available seasons, a total of fifty episodes.

What had happened? The passage of time? Why was the activity of watching TV alone no longer the fraught and miserable experience it had been after my separation? What I came to understand was that after two or three episodes, I wasn’t alone; I was with the increasingly familiar characters. Evenings when my kids were with their father, I got together with my old friends: Jimmy and Kima, Lester and Bunk.

After finishing The Wire, I moved on to The Shield and Rescue Me, expanding my social circle to include some of the most unsavory and sexist guys you could ever want to know, but I loved them and enjoyed their company evening after evening. I inhaled Friday Night Lights so fast, I caught up with the broadcast and had to content myself with using my new DVR to hoard episodes so I could watch a couple at a sitting.

When I was ready to start dating, I thought about that movie, Italian for Beginners, and the reassuringly modest ambitions of its lovelorn characters. Someone to eat pasta with, that would be nice. But why not hunt the big game? Someone to watch TV with, to share a laugh over a character’s foibles, to clutch when another character comes close to losing everything — well, a girl can dream, can’t she?

Fast forward to 2011. After a lot of bad first dates, I’m in a wonderful relationship, and we’ve met some great people together: Dexter, to name our favorite; and the blind detective played by Clive Owen in the British series Second Sight; and even Jed and Abby Bartlet and the rest of the gang from The West Wing, which I unaccountably missed the first time around. In their case, it was a matter of one of us introducing some old pals to the other and both of us being delighted that we all got along so well. It’s a good relationship when you like each other’s friends.

Ann Packer is the author of Swim Back to Me, just out from Knopf. She received the Great Lakes Book Award for her novel, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which was a national bestseller. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and other magazines.

3 comments so far.

  1. avatar phyllis Doyle Pepe says:

    The wonder of being able to get so caught up in these films–-series–-is very much like getting involved emotionally in novels except in this case we are more passive, watching rather than reading. But the impact of how these character’s stories affect us is powerful and Ann, being able to bring them into her life, made being alone bearable. I am at the moment enthralled with “Friday Night Lights” and I have someone with me to “clutch” during the sad parts just like Ann, happily, has that someone with her. We also make popcorn.

  2. avatar D C says:

    Divorce… death… whichever way, you end up alone.  I’ve thought about that a lot lately — as we age, and my husband and I have so much more freedom as the kids age too, I worry about his health, since he doesn’t worry about it all.  I think if I should find myself alone, I will fill my time (when not working) with volunteer work.  I’ve gotten little tastes of it over the years when I have the time, which isn’t often, and I find I really enjoy working at the food pantry, which here in Houston is a huge operation.  I do it 3 times a year with a group from work.  If my husband were not around, I’d do it a lot more often.  And I think I’d watch less TV and movies, because my husband is a bit of an addict to the tube.  If he weren’t around, I don’t think I’d enjoy it as much because it would make me miss him more.  And I’d work out a lot more. 

  3. avatar mary burdt says:

    Dear Ann, The words “someone to eat pasta with” is so right on. My husband of many years passed away a few months ago and I miss him terribly. Not,so much, for the passion but all the little times, like watching baseball, a favorite soap or going out for coffee.

    I am happy you have found someone to share the little things in life, and who knows, maybe even enjoy a passionate life with.

    Thank you for this article.