I walk onto the concrete schoolyard of New Rochelle Catholic Elementary, ready to brave another day of reading, writing, and religion class. But before my peers are shepherded into 8th grade homeroom, I huddle on a bench next to my friends Telisha and Shelly to talk about last night's jaw-dropping episode of Melrose Place. The cliffhanger that is on everyone's lips this chilly morning involves a back-from-the-dead Kimberly Shaw (a pre-Desperate Marcia Cross) silently spying on her ex-fiance, Michael Mancini, while he hooks up with the Vixen of All Vixens, Sydney Andrews. It is a television (and pop culture) moment for the history books - only to be topped by the following episode in which the resurrected doctor pulls off her wig to reveal a giant Frankenscar on her cranium.
Every Tuesday morning was reserved for Melrose recaps and speculations. My classmates and I could not help but regurgitate and obsess over the details of the previous night's episode. Had we been coworkers sharing a confined office space, we would be gathered around that proverbial watercooler, chatting up a storm. Other TV milestones from my childhood and/or adolescence that were heavily discussed immediately after their broadcast included: the accidental shooting of Scott in the second season of Beverly Hills, 90210 (a main cast member from a teen show getting killed off? My fellow sixth-graders were stunned), Bob waking up next to Suzanne Pleshette in the series finale of Newhart (even at the tender age of 10 I knew that was one brilliant closer), Ellen's big "coming out" show in 1997, Jackie getting beaten up by her boyfriend, Fisher, on Roseanne, that whole snake-rat speech delivered by Susan Hawk on the final episode of the very first Survivor...
But a funny thing happened during the past 15 years or so since those innocent days on the blacktop. Cable networks started to produce original content. DVDs invaded video stores. Lives became busier. And a little thing called TiVo made it possible to record our favorite shows without using those cumbersome VHS tapes. In short, everything was suddenly digital.
With this evolution came what I like to call The Decline of the Watercooler Chats. Less frequent now are those moments when friends or coworkers can gather together - face-to-face - the morning after a juicy night's worth of scripted drama. Why? Simply because everything is now saved on the DVR at home. One can go for weeks without watching several episodes of Mad Men or The Vampire Diaries because they've been accumulating on that little metal box perched below (or above) your HDTV. "I can just catch up on everything over the weekend," you say. And when your friend wants to talk about the shenanigans from that phenomenal installment of Top Chef, you can't: "I'm three episodes behind on my DVR. Don't spoil anything for me!"
Fortunately, I had yet to own my first TiVo when, on Alias, Francie was assassinated – by her doppelganger (!); I had watched that OMG-worthy episode with Kathleen the night it originally aired. There was no waiting period. We immediately turned to each other and screamed at this ingenious plot twist, one of the many that was typical for the ABC spy serial (this particular moment comes in at 6:40):
It seems like we didn't have this 'problem' when we learned to record shows on the ol' VCR back in the 80s and 90s. VHS cassettes typically allowed up to six hours of recorded footage on each tape, so there was more of an urgency to watch your show as soon as possible and reuse it for next week's programs. Now? DVRs can typically hold up to 80 hours of televised content. Every minute of every sitcom, every inane reality show, every morning chatfest can build up in those memory chips, and you can take comfort in knowing that you have it all stored in there for future viewing. But the question is: When will you?
With the exception of daily blogs dedicated to the dissection of popular shows, there seems to be less and less instant reaction and feedback discussed, especially in person, because less and less people are watching them "live," or during the actual given timeslot. As a result, less and less people can gather together to talk about their favorite television moments. Everyone seems to be on their own viewing schedule thanks to the blessed invention of the DVR. I even cancelled my TV Guide subscription years ago because of the accommodating features and benefits the DVR has offered; it knows when my shows are on - when to avoid any repeats - saving them all for me. That, and I never approved of TV Guide's revamped format. Give me my paperback-sized, black-and-white booklet any day.
There are also a few extremists out there (you know who you are), television viewers who will opt to miss an entire season of a hot new show all of their friends are glued to - either because they're too late jumping on the bandwagon and don't have the time to catch up to present storylines, or they tell themselves that they can always add the DVDs to their Netflix queue when the season is finally released and pull a marathon over a weekend. I am currently doing this with the third season of Dexter and went through something similar three years ago when I watched the free pilot of Damages on iTunes and immediately purchased the rest of the stellar first season.
Perhaps we should all pay our respects to the watercooler as we charge forward into this new era. Not only does it have to face the competition of bottled water and the rising trend of reusable aluminum canteens, this modern-day campfire of sorts has to face neglect as less people hover around it to chat about fictitious characters and the colorful lives they lead.
Let us all raise our small paper cups...