“Oh my God, you HAVE to watch that!”

It’s impossible to mention The Wire to someone who hasn’t seen it without them bristling about how everyone says they have to watch The Wire. There’s a similar defensiveness around Mad Men, as people seem to think that if they disagree about the quality of the show, they are subject to social sanction.

I don’t doubt that such things occur. At the same time, the dynamic reminds me of omnivores who constantly rail against the self-righteousness of vegetarians and vegans, who are constantly trying to shove their ideology down the omnivore’s throat, etc. I will admit that I have indulged in such rhetoric before, and I was stopped short when a vegetarian asked me: “When has that actually happened?” I had to admit that proselytizing meat-shunners are indeed rare, to say the least. I’m not sure I’ve ever actually met one. No vegetarian has even told me, other than in internet arguments, that I should adopt their dietary preferences. I’ve dated and lived with vegetarians and been free to carry on my meat-eating ways without interference in all cases.

So where does the perception come from? My theory is that meat-eaters systematically exaggerate expressions of vegetarianism or veganism into moral accusations against those who follow other dietary regimes. Simply stating that they do not eat a certain thing sounds like a judgment on those who do. Again, such accusations are vanishingly rare in my experience — most non-meat-eaters go out of their way to draw as little attention to that fact during an actual meal as they possibly can, precisely because they are human beings who understand basic courtesy, etc.

I suspect that a related form of defensive anxiety is going on with the perceived oppressiveness of demands that one watch The Wire or effusive praise of Mad Men. In reality, saying “you must watch this” is an expression of enthusiasm rather than a literal demand. I suspect that the defensiveness around The Wire centers specifically around race — people worry that they will be perceived as racist if they don’t want to watch a show with a majority-black cast.

I don’t really have a theory for Mad Men, but I want this to be a safe space. So I’ll say this: I like Mad Men a lot. I think it does interesting things formally and aesthetically, things I’ve never seen in television before and doubt I’ll see again. But I understand that it’s not for everyone. It’s slow, it’s set in an off-putting milieu, and it often seems to withold the typical satisfactions of television on principle. It’s okay not to like it. It also might not be a form of speaking the truth to power to point out that while all those sheep love it, you never got into it.

9 thoughts on ““Oh my God, you HAVE to watch that!”

  1. Most cultural products are super optional now. Nobody cares if you don’t read a certain book or don’t watch a certain movie. High quality TV serials are the least optional though. Still pretty optional.

    They take up so much time though. And for me and I suspect for others, binge watching tv series is not a healthy thing to do. I see why people bristle at recommendations. There is a little bit of “I know you don’t drink, but this new craft beer is so good. you should try it.” going on.

  2. I’m curious, how did you react (apart from posting this, obviously) to those who have defensively bristled at mentions of The Wire and Mad Men? Basically, I’m wondering if you reacted as your helpful vegetarian interlocutor did, and if they subsequently reacted as you did.

    I’d hope oppressively demanding Wire/MM fans are as rare as or rarer than accusatory vegetarians, because while I doubt few incipient vegetarians are actually turned off of the lifestyle by the latter, I can more easily believe people would be soured by the former. What a bummer, to miss something you might enjoy because its proselytizers you’ve encountered are jerks.

  3. I feel doubly interpellated—animals and TV—but I have a room to paint and a lawn to cut. Anyway, science says vegetarian hostility is more about killers feeling defensive by the mere presence of non-killers than anything the non-killers do. The real comparison is to the uneasiness felt by white Americans (especially cops) to black American bodies. Anyway, a report on the research: http://munchies.vice.com/articles/are-meat-eaters-more-likely-to-tolerate-social-inequality

  4. I’m a committed omnivore, and have also never had a vegan or vegetarian try to push their diet on me.

    That said, I gave up on The Wire halfway through the fourth season (long after the series concluded) when I realized I just didn’t enjoy it. It was more like a homework assignment given to me by friends than any source of entertainment. Same story with Mad Men, except I didn’t make it past episode 5 (not sure why. I agree the show is beautiful; maybe it was just the overwhelming whiteness of it).

    I can’t tell you how many friends of mine have demanded, not suggested but demanded that I go back and finish them. I’m not sure why. These are friends whose taste in music differs from mine, and they’d never tell me I had to listen to the latest Lana Del Rey instead of my usual Gucci Mane. Just another mystery, I guess.

  5. Thanks for this post. Great. Just to add that I have found Mad Men to be an eminently teachable text (I’ve been setting it on my Modern American Fiction course since 2010). I find it particularly useful for challenging the predilections of students who are resistant to debating questions of race, sex and gender, and I think this is in large part due to the fact that it centres on an ‘off putting milieu’ whose fictional (WASPy) identifications and experiences are not so far removed from that experienced by majority of my students, their parents and/or grandparents.

  6. Personally, I knew at least one vegetarian who used phrases like ‘meat is murder’ and delighted in thrusting publications by the local equivalent of PETA under the noses of people whilst eating and asking them ‘What do you think ?’. You can’t build a theory from a sample size of one though.

    “It’s impossible to mention The Wire to someone who hasn’t seen it without them bristling about how everyone says they have to watch The Wire. There’s a similar defensiveness around Mad Men, as people seem to think that if they disagree about the quality of the show, they are subject to social sanction.”

    There are several things here; the defensiveness about not ‘getting it’ but also the fear that ones opinion is essentially rendered ‘invalid’ in some way unless one watches/participates in the social moment. The latter operates from the level of the social to the intellectual.

    To be clear, I tried it because people whose writing makes me think, wrote that it made them think. Though my reaction was largely similar to that of ‘amaryahshaye’ in the previous post. At the same time, it appears to have been adopted as useful apocrypha by a lot of conservative commentators who don’t seem to be as aware of the subtleties – so in some circles it becomes the equivalent of ‘You can’t really understand foo .. unless you read that Jamie K Smith piece on equality’.

  7. I don’t believe I’ve ever shamed someone for failing to watch a TV show. Even with The Wire, I think there are obviously good reasons not to like it other than racism — and good reasons generally to avoid watching hours and hours of TV.

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