When I was a kid, we watched television. All the time. That was pretty much it. Sometimes, you know to change things up, we got Baskin Robbins ice cream and watched television. And there were definitely times when we played board games … while the television played. Mostly though, yeah, we just watched television.
This will sound like old-person talk, but I think I should set the scene: We had this television that was roughly the size of Vince Woolfork with a screen roughly the size of a Chinese take-home menu. We had three VHF channels -- ABC, NBC, CBS, that's all -- and even these would come in sporadically based on the benevolence of the weather gods and the roof antenna. I'm not going to say that the times have spoiled me, but having grown used to high-def television, I wouldn't sit down and watch that old TV now if it was playing my future.
But back in those days, oh yes, we'd watch through any amount of static ("I think I can make out a face!") and no what happened to be on TV ("Shh, it's The Fred Travelina Show"). We just watched.
The thing I remember most is that we watched as a family. I still see the arrangement -- my father on the far left of the couch, near the window, my mother in a chair close to the kitchen, me and my brother generally sitting on the shag carpeting. Cigarette smoke. The dinner aroma still lingering. Snow piled to the windowsill … rain splattering against the window … bright sunshine on those summer days that stretched. I always imagined it was this way in house after house, throughout Cleveland, throughout Ohio, throughout America, imagined that this scene was being played out again and again. The families changed. The aromas changed. The weather changed. In the end though, everyone was watching Laverne and Shirley try to escape their dreary brewery lives.
Of course, it wasn't just Laverne and Shirley. Over time, I would say I learned a lot of things from television.
Cool meant being able to get a jukebox to play music merely by hitting it.
Uncool meant trying to pick up women at the Regal Beagle.
Love meant enduring Michael J. Fox, even in his Reagan years.
Hope meant believing that you might have a singing career, even while working as a waitress for Mel.
Justice represented slamming the door in the face of the doorman, who was always trawling for a tip.
Technology meant giving somebody one bionic arm and one bionic eye.
Judgment meant deciding whether or not to gong someone.
Country meant Marie Osmond.
Rock 'n Roll meant Donnie Osmond.
Being drunk meant hiccuping a lot, like Foster Brooks.
Being dumb meant bidding on the first showcase showdown. In those days, the second one was ALWAYS better.
The greatest insult was calling someone a hockey puck. Or meathead. Or telling them to put a rubber hose up their nose.
Bad guys always tried to outrun the cops.
Everyone wanted to shoot J.R.
Television was not A central part of our lives, it was THE central part. It was how we marked the days. It was at the start of almost every conversation. It was at the heart of our universe.
Fast forward all those years, now I'm a father, we have two kids, and we almost never watch television as a family now. I wish I could say that this was some sort of well-meaning decision we made to watch less television and spend more time talking and bonding and solving problems like they did on the Brady Bunch. Truth is, we don't watch television much because we don't have the time. I look back at those 1970s and 1980s days and wonder -- how did we have so much time? The kids always need to be somewhere. Elizabeth swims. Katie plays tennis. They both have piano lessons. Katie has gymnastics. Elizabeth had drama club. There are constant sleepover requests. There's always some intricate and involved homework undertaking … and it's always due TOMORROW.*
*I can't say that I've pass along many traits to my oldest daughter, thankfully, but one I did pass along was the remarkable ability to only remember the biggest homework assignment 15 hours before it is due. This happened again over the weekend, with my daughter having a relatively major project to turn in on Monday. I bring this up only to offer some advice to you parents. Part of Elizabeth's project was to create her own word search containing key words from the book the class was reading. It's not a bad concept, and Elizabeth got into it -- She created all sorts of false starts and repeat letters and so on.
Which leads to my advice: If your child has to do a word search, make sure that they denote WHERE they put the words WHILE they are doing it. You may think, as I did, "Oh, ha ha, I'll let them solve it at the end, that will be fun." No. It will not be fun. Trust me on this one. It will not be fun. It will add an astonishing amount of time and stress to the project and it could -- I'm just saying it could -- lead a normally serene father to yell, "WHERE DID YOU PUT THE WORD 'FATHER?'"
I just don't see how families have time to watch TV (I feel the same way about golf). I mean, there's a secret out there that they know and we don't. I mean, sure, on the weekends the girls will get to watch a couple of their shows -- "Bunheads," I guess, or "Victorious" or some shows like that -- while I'm upstairs watching sports. But all in all, we almost never sit around as a family and just watch television shows.
Except, that is, for "Sugardome."
I will forgive you if you have never heard of the show "Sugardome." Based on my research, almost nobody watches this show. From what I can tell, it doesn't even have a regular time slot on the Food Network. They seem to play it whenever Bobby Flay is unavailable (approximately 43 minutes every two weeks). I actually have no idea how we found it. But we did. And somehow, we got hooked.
Now every week (or at least every week that it's on -- like I say, it appears to be on sporadically) we gather around the television, just like my family did all those years ago. And, together, we watch Sugardome.
The basic concept of the show -- and I imagine this will sound familiar because, in my experience there are only like three basic cooking shows premises* -- is that teams are trying to create this extraordinary piece of art made out of sugar and cake.
*1. Crazy competition/reclamation project where, in the end, judges ridicule/yell at contestants.
2. Travel show where host captures local flavor and eats unusual things.
3. Cooking lessons that inevitably use way too much butter.
The teams on Sugardome change every week. The teams almost always have a sugar artist and a cake artist. Those two are pretty much constant. But the third person on the team is a mystery … it is never someone who works with food. It could be a Hollywood makeup artist, a muralist, a sand-castle artist (yes, that's right), a toymaker, a roller coaster architect, a special effects guru, a pyrotechnics expert and so on.
Together the team is supposed to create something extraordinary.
The teams are given a general theme -- the 1980s, Dangers of the Deep, Dragons, whatever -- and told to make the most amazing dessert masterpiece their minds can imagine. Then, throughout the competition, they are given three "twists," which are new instructions guaranteed to mess them up. Everyone works hard, the two pastry people inevitably yell at the third person, someone threatens to walk off, several ideas fall apart and the Sugardome people then do some very creative editing to make the show seem somewhat cohesive. In the end the winning team gets $15,000.
I would say we love this show for four reasons.
- The host is a guy named David Bull, who apparently is a doctor and a reasonably big celebrity in England. I don't know if this is true, I just read it on Wikipedia. We like him because about five times a show he will make some preposterously snarky remark, which will sound awesome in his British accent. He will say something like: "One team married whimsical elements with unspeakable gore." Stuff like that. Every week, he tells the worst team in his angriest voice: "It is time for you to leave the Sugardome!" The girls find immeasurable joy in this, and I have to admit agreeing with them. It reminds me of how much I used to like Ben Wright's announcing on CBS golf ("The ripples tell the sad story!").
- One of the judges is an awesome woman named Paulette Goto -- the girls want to be her. She is so great I just followed her on Twitter. I cannot believe she only has 440 followers. This is not a just nation when a funny and charismatic woman who makes pastries for a living has fewer Twitter followers than, well, anybody. Paulette Goto, we love you.
- Week after week, one of the teams is ALWAYS a disaster. Their cake falls apart, their main sugar piece breaks, their treat tastes like tires, they start yelling at each other, one person quits in the middle, it's always great. No, it's not fair to laugh at these people. They are put in an impossible spot. They essentially have six hours to make the Sistine Chapel out of pulled sugar and brownies. And then, three times in the middle David Bull will come out and say, "You now must also recreate the final scene of Gone With The Wind using only cotton candy and a lemon peel, and you must make it fit seamlessly into your design." It's not right to laugh. We do anyway.
- The girls have now watched enough shows that they are now taking their Sugardome experience to a whole different level -- kind of the way I used to watch Three's Company ("Hey did anyone ever notice that every week two people are talking and then one overhears only a part of the conversation and misunderstands it?")
For example, Katie, the 8-year-old, said last week that "They should never try to use Rice Krispies treats because it never sticks." She is right, one of the key lessons of Sugardome is: Rice Krispies Treats equals doom. She also has started to use the phrase "Chocolate fondant" (which she pronounced "fondit") in a surprising number of conversations. Elizabeth, the 11-year-old, has now pieced together the pattern of the three twists. Margo, the wife, tries to come up with her own ideas of what the teams should do next ("They shouldn't make their centerpiece that big, they should go simpler …")
And suddenly, Margo and I find ourselves trying to make LESSONS out of Sugardome. "See girls," we say, "when things are going wrong you have to not panic and try to work together." This is precisely what my parents would do when we were watching some sitcom like "Facts of Life" -- they would try to make it educational. They were no more successful then than we are now.
I'm not telling you Sugardome is a good show or that your family would like it. Maybe they would. Maybe they wouldn't. No idea. I'm just saying that, there really isn't much family television these days -- stuff the kids and parents might like equally. And there is much time. And, really, there are so many other distractions now -- iPads, xBoxes, Netflix, eReaders -- that there just doesn't seem much point to just sitting together and watching a TV show.
But Sugardome brings us together, gets all of us sitting in front of the television at the same time, just like families did 35 years ago. All those years ago, I honestly believed that's what being family meant. It mean sitting in front of the television, laughing at Benson or One Day at a Time or Rhoda, explaining jokes that went over the kids heads, threatening to send the kids to bed if they didn't quiet down.
Times have changed. You can't go back. Heck, you wouldn't want to go back. But, for a few minutes every week, we sit around watch people make huge artistic desserts in an effort to win $15,000. And I will admit, I feel just the tiniest bit of sadness every time we leave the Sugardome and drift back into our hectic lives.