"The Tiger King" comes up in interviews and so does ESPN's Michael Jordan doc "The Last Dance." "Lost" gets a mention (yes, that "Lost"), "The Office" and even animé cult hit "My Hero Academia." too.
Eight weeks into COVID-19 quarantine, our relationship with TV has evolved, deepened and splintered. Early on we picked the low-hanging fruit ("Tiger") and have since moved up to the higher branches, seeking more rarefied diversions.
To find out how rarefied, diverse and splintered, I spoke recently to seven Long Islanders about their TV consumption under quarantine. What surprised them — and me — is just how much their habits have changed since March.
BONIFACIO DIAZ, LEVITTOWN
I first met Diaz — just "Bono" — around this time last year, when we forged a reader/writer alliance over "Game of Thrones." His grandmother, who came from the Dominican Republica and raised her family in East New York, eventually bought homes for her children in Commack, Wantagh and Levittown. Bono, 20, now spends most of his time at his parents' Levittown house, working remotely as a manager for an LI-based car engine computer distributor.
His current infatuation is Japanese animé, specifically a four-year-old series called "My Hero Academia" (Hulu) about a boy named Izuku Midoriya born into a world where everyone has superpowers and he has none. An exploration of human agency in a chaotic world, "Hero" explores exactly what or who a "hero" is, and how heroism is manifested.
"There is a correlation between the show and real life right now," says Bono, "specifically, the uncertainty — where the greatest hero no longer has powers and where the villain can't be stopped.
"But in the show you see how people are just taking the baby steps to make things better. It's inspiring to see on a TV show that there's hope,.and that there are people behind the scenes who may not know how all this will end but are going above and beyond what they need to do — just like the nurses and doctors and caregivers and all the others who are the real heroes out there. I'm 20 years old and this show has made this grown man cry several times …"
ROBIN HALPERN, SYOSSET
Just before the quarantine, Halpern had started a new job in investor relations, while her husband Andrew was working in the city as a financial adviser. They also have three children, 6, 9 and 12. Both still work (virtually) but time has opened up.
TV, she says, has made every night "date night for us, so instead of the nights we might have gone out, we're spending here. We never had time to binge watch, but we do now. We're watching 'The Crown' and just finished 'The Tiger King'."
She has also discovered an atavistic pursuit from ancient times, back when families gathered at appointed times around a TV to watch whatever the networks decided they would.
It was called "family viewing." (Remember?)
Just before bedtime (8), "we're letting [the kids] watch stuff that's a little bit mature but it's about entertaining ourselves too, and not sitting through mind-numbing cartoons. It's a thrill for them to get to watch mommy-and-daddy shows."
"We've also been watching Disney+ together, and going down memory lane, with 'Hannah Montana.' There's not a lot of new stuff coming out now [on the networks] but 'Survivor' is a great family show, and gives [the kids] a little bit of a primer in character development and how to overcome hardship."
They've also been family-watching "The Office": "It's fun to see again through their eyes," she says.
CRAIG AND CAROL GILLIAM, FREEPORT
Gilliam is Black Heritage librarian at the Roosevelt Public Library' her husband, Craig, a longtime coach, was a former standout at Tennessee State (cornerback) and played with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their TV tastes are divergent.
She gravitates to news and true crime ("Dateline," "48 Hours"), Craig to sports. They've had to adjust these past eight weeks. "I'm not a big TV person," she admits, but now finds herself watching a lot more morning TV now ("GMA," "The View," "Tamron Hall") until work-related. webinars intrude. Craig, meanwhile. "is a big TV person" now forced to watch a "lot of classic sports," or channel surf. He's deep into "The Last Dance."
Since quarantine, Gilliam says she's been watching a lot more OWN, in large measure because it was among the first networks to explore the COVID pandemic's disproportionate impact on black Americans. ("Oprah Talks COVID-19 — The Deadly Impact On Black America" aired in mid-April.)
Oprah Winfrey "talked about how it was affecting our community," says Gilliam, when no one else was. "When this first started to spread, [TV] didn't talk so much about how this was affecting African American communities but the experts [on this special] said they should have been because we are the communities that have a high rate of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes. This should have been high on the list [in the early TV news coverage] much earlier on, just to make the black and brown communities more aware of what's going on and how to social distance."
JOEL RAUCH, PLAINVIEW
Rauch came somewhat late to TV for the usual reasons — busy family life and career, with two tours as a public school teacher in Corona, Queens, and as an executive in the garment industry in between those. Since retirement, Rauch, 72, caught up fast, then doubled down during quarantine.
Asked about his current TV obsessions, he happily sends a list via email, appended with concise and (best I can tell) perfectly accurate critical appraisals: "Killing Eve" ("a bit played out") … "Extraction" ("very high body count") … "Unorthodox ("excellent insight [about] leaving the ultra orthodox Hasidic community") …"Fauda" ("wasteful killing of innocent people in the midst of centuries of distrust…").
Get Rauch on the phone, and his inner TV critic emerges. Life under quarantine has left him without his beloved Yankees, which leaves time to catch up with everything else. Instead of the usual comfort food, Rauch "looks for things that fill my head space. I try not to watch things that are just trivial, or as my mother used to call 'foolishness.' I love 'Planet Earth.' The other night I woke up thinking about the life of sea turtles."
For some, TV is a diversion, but for Rauch, it's confirmation, reinforcement, and enlightenment. He concedes that what he watches "is not relaxing at all" but at least it offers a perspective on "what is happening in our world or can happen in our world."
MEL NORMOYLE, HOLBROOK
Normoyle reached a "breaking point" during quarantine, or in her words "got to where every waking moment had been consumed by work, and I had nightmares and almost had a panic attack. I had to step away for my own health."
At that point, she turned on the TV and caught up with her first love, animé. Since quarantine, she and her fiance have also discovered "My Hero Academia."
She's also turned to a new obsession, "What We Do In the Shadows" (FX), a funny, fourth-wall-busting sendup of the blood-and-fang genre and is wrapping up the third season of "Westworld" too.
Normoyle says she's enjoying her new work-hard-binge-harder lifestyle, but longs for the viewing parties she used to attend (or throw). "TV has been a wonderful venue for people" who can attend online watch parties or to catch up after some episode. "It's giving a sense of closeness even though we're so far away.
"But we're social creatures. We suffer without interaction. Nothing is ever going to replace hugging your friend or family member."
REV. JEROME SMITH JR., WADING RIVER
Smith is the reverend at the Evergreen Baptist Church in Huntington and has conducted four graveside services for parishioners who had died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The services are brisk but "we have to have some kind of cloture and it's my opportunity to let people know that — yes — it's sorrowful but for those who believe, there is another existence beyond this earthly vessel."
Ebullient — "gregarious" is the word he uses — Smith is someone who doesn't get pessimistic easily, he says: "I have a childlike heart and I'm gonna keep it."
For Smith TV has become not an escape but "a distraction to turn away from all that" — the ceaseless COVID-19 coverage, he says. The show he "really, really likes" is Travel Channel's "Paranormal Caught on Camera" which "is the first thing I look for when I come home at night." He finally caught up with "The Tiger King," too.
The show he's devoted to is "The Last Dance" — "watched every episode twice"— even though Smith calls himself a "huge" Knicks fan.
"[Jordan] was gifted with talent,but still outworked everybody, made his teammates better, and refused to lose — allowing nothing to stand in his way, similar to how we as a people will not let these current events stand in the way of us eventually overcoming these hard days that lie ahead."
ALFRED MARTIN, CENTRAL ISLIP
Until quarantine, Martin, 50, spent most of his life avoiding TV. Nothing personal. He just didn't have the time (he runs an online education business out of his home, and spends most nights as an umpire-for-hire). If a TV was on, he'd watch the Mets. Friends would mention shows, and he would stare blankly.
Then, with the world on hold, he discovered streaming. Everything changed, or rather Martin did.
He got through three seasons of "Ozark" in about three days, then both seasons of "Jack Ryan," YouTube's "Kobra Kai" ("hilarious!"), the ten-season run of "Frasier," while "The Tiger King " was a mere aperitif. At his son's recommendation, "Parks and Recreation," "30 Rock" and "The Office" are next.
Martin admits that his newfound zeal is curious, possibly unhinged, certainly sleep-depriving. He's up most nights until 3 a.m. "The family is doing good [and there's] no stress" in his life. He emphasizes that this is not some manifestation of pandemic panic: "It's just that the Genie has come out of the bottle." Martin is not sure what he'll do when things get back to normal ("I guess it'll be like jet lag.").
But in the meantime, there's always more TV.
For example, he says he overheard some people recently talking about an unfamiliar show — something called "Game of Thrones."
"Maybe I'll do that next."