There’s an octopus in my den. Its head is my television set, and the tentacles are all its attached boxes and wires. The octopus is supposed to make it easier for me to watch TV. So how come I spend most of my leisure time wrestling with it like Bela Lugosi in “Bride of the Monster”?
Like you, I have favorite shows. Probably like you, I find chasing them down in the byzantine topography of the modern media landscape a study in digitized insanity. Case in point: My wife and I have recently taken a fancy to “Jane the Virgin,” an adorably over-the-top spoof of the Spanish-language soap operas known as telenovelas. The show initially airs on the CW Monday nights at 9, which is when we would be watching it if we had any brains.
But we’ve been seduced by the promise of television unbound, the idea that you can now watch whatever you want whenever you want thanks to cable on-demand menus, add-on boxes, and streaming services like Netflix and HuluPlus. So we figure we can always catch up with “our episodes” later. But then we have to find them.
This has turned into something of a snipe hunt. By the time we stumbled onto “Jane the Virgin,” the initial episodes were no longer available for free (with ads) on Comcast’s on-demand menu, nor were they on the usual go-to backup of HuluPlus. I finally dug them up — for $1.99 an episode, without ads — on Vudu, a heretofore unknown-to-me streaming service I found on my Roku player, one of the several little black plastic cubes that attaches to my TV like a sucker-fish on a shark. By the time we’d got through most of the first season, the earlier episodes were back (for free, with ads) on Comcast. It’s post-modern Whac-a-Mole.
We also like the show “Transparent,” if only because it makes our family seem not in the least neurotic by comparison. The show has won multiple awards and deserves them, because series creator Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under”) is, in fact, a genius. But “Transparent” is produced by Amazon, the people who once sold you books and now could probably sell you a kidney, and you can watch the show only if you subscribe to Amazon Prime Instant Video. Which I also get on TV through my Roku box if I don’t want to dial it up on my laptop. (Who wants to watch TV on a laptop? Everyone under 30, clearly. I know people who are working their way through all 10 seasons of “Friends” on Netflix in this fashion the way the Victorians once binged on serialized Dickens novels.)
These days when men of a certain early-adopter sort get together, they don’t size up each other’s TVs or stereos. They check out their arrays. These are the constellation of devices hooked up to a central node along with the services necessary to get Everything You Need. Myself, I have a pretty large (as opposed to obscenely large) TV screen, a DVD player, a cable box, an Apple TV, and Roku boxes. No DVR (I know, crazy), but, still — that’s five remotes plus a switcher remote meant to make our lives easier but that only adds to the mayhem.
I also have subscriptions to Netflix, HuluPlus, Amazon Prime, and Fandor (a streaming purveyor of rare, weird movies). Some of these bring unexpected benefits to a film geek: a monthly HuluPlus subscription gives one access to the entire Criterion Collection. Woo-hoo! Come on by and we’ll gorge on Kurosawa movies over a big bowl of artisanal popcorn!
I’ve typed up instructions on how to use our home-media system so that visiting relatives won’t just paw at the screen hoping a picture comes on. It reads like a legal document composed by Groucho Marx: Simon-pure double-talk guaranteed to cross the eyes of a communications major. The problem isn’t my pathetic attempt to make sense of my own electronic possessions. The problem is that finding a show or a movie you want is too often like driving through Maine — you can’t get there from here.
In truth, this unyoking of a once-simple TV habit — those prehistoric days when you pressed a button and dialed to one of three networks (plus a couple of UHF stations if you wanted to catch “Willie Whistle”) — has become more labor than entertainment. Cultures and the media technologies within them go through periods of consolidation and periods of fragmentation, and we are hip deep in one of the latter, with no end or unifying solution in sight. CBS and HBO will soon offer their own a la carte streaming services, adding to the smorgasbord. Others will follow. Where’s the website that helps us navigate this modern Library of Babel? Where’s the multi-dimensional “TV Guide” necessary for media life in 2015? Why can’t someone tell me where to find last month’s episodes of “The Good Wife”?
If the wheel does eventually turn back to consolidation, we may yet be handed a one-stop fix for our TV viewing, provided one company can get big enough or buy up enough rights or stomp out the competition. I asked a 20-something colleague the other day how she finds her shows, and she replied that she does what all her friends do — downloads them illegally through the Project Free TV website, a samizdat directory to links of highly dubious international provenance. I imagine sucking down episodes of “Better Call Saul” this way while a Bulgarian teenager named Pavel sucks up my social security number and banking passwords.
Still, right there is a message to the rapidly increasing keepers of our home entertainments: Get it together, now, or you risk losing viewers — and the revenue they represent — to those providers who make it easy, regardless of legality. As for me, I’m taking a whole new approach to the giant kudzu plant that my TV set has become.
I’m turning it off.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.