Grand Rounds

Why we do the things we do

Watching TV with Your Kids Over the Holidays? Try Firefly.

I've written prescriptions for watching TV...

A lot like our family...
"I'll watch it with you, Dad, if you tell me what its about." She paused, trying to figure out how to say what came next. "It just can't be one of your dumb shows."

My daughter was trying here, putting in real effort. I had to think carefully. I could either hit it out of the park, or, more likely strike out (yet again). It was a seminal moment.

I stared at the screen, looked at the starship and the horses, and tried to explain.

"You see, it's, like, 500 years in the future. They've started terra-forming planets and then there was a civil war but these guys fought against the government that won, so now they stay on the outside and are sort of like pirates."

My daughter, bless her heart, just stared, blinking. I had not hit it out the park. I wasn't even in the batter's box. Actually, when I look back at that description, I deserved to strike out.

"Dad..." she began. I could feel it coming. Another rejection.

We're stuck in my parents' house over winter vacation, its cold out, not much to do, and I'm two seconds away from introducing her to one of my favorite shows ever.

And I'm blowing it.

I thought of the little arguments, small ones really, that had already occurred on this visit home. Just recapitulations of every argument my family's ever had. Its all part of the annual ritual of re-gathering, especially in this age when you only get together over holidays or vacations. Damn country, so big and spread out...you see your family at the mercy of the airlines' deals. And even then it doesn't always work out. Hell, one of our suitcases bypassed Kansas City altogether and went to Korea. (I'm not making this up. Our suitcase is in Korea, and because of the international dateline, I can say things like "our bag left yesterday this morning at 9:00 AM" to my perplexed family. Still the international dateline isn't half as puzzling 

He ain't exactly bad...
 as how one bag out of three could get diverted to Korea from Boston's airport instead of making the somewhat simpler trip to Kansas City.)

So, there we were, in the bedroom I used to call mine, with the laptop and all that modern technology, and I'm about to have a genuine bonding moment with my older kid through a TV show I genuinely love, and I can't sell the show any better than this?

I thought of the family laughter as we got off the plane. I thought of the arguments and celebrations and gift-giving, and I looked back at the screen and tried again.

"It's about family," I said. "Firefly is about family."

"But there's a spaceship...and...horses." She wasn't completely buying it. It just didn't quite make enough sense.

"Trust me." I stuttered, and started the video.

That was three days ago. Now we're five episodes in and we're both loving it. Firefly is one of the best shows ever to be on TV, and almost certainly the best show ever to be cancelled. It works today as well as it did eight years ago, and my daughter and I are having discussions about morals and authority and even love in ways that the displacement of stories makes uniquely possible.

I've written prescriptions, honest-to-God 'scripts, for my grumpy patients to watch TV with their folks. I know that my saying this might make some parents angry, and it might make even make some readers downright indignant and even self-righteous, but I'm telling you that if you want to get your kids talking, for goodness sakes don't do it directly at first. Find yourself a show you can all live with and talk about that instead.

We're watching Firefly.

Is Malcolm Reynolds a bad man? He's a criminal, isn't he? He's breaking the law just by flying that beat-up old spaceship.

And what about Jayne? He goes and turns in the doctor and the doctor's troubled sister in order to collect the reward money, but then he thinks better of it and gets them out safely instead. Still, Mal knows what happened, and when Jayne and Mal are all alone, Mal wallops him with a wrench and damn near kills him until he apologizes. Is it OK for Mal to hit Jayne? Is it OK that Mal doesn't tell anyone else what he knows?

We got feuds in our family. They rear their heads every holiday. Someone doesn't call someone back or someone forgets to ask someone about something. Friends come and go. Politics gets us riled.

Families are complicated things, and there's nothing like the holidays to put all that complication at unhealthy light speed. Still, all those conflicts need to be recognized, endured, dealt with and somewhat resolved in that small and inadequate space between Christmas and New Years. That's a tall order for over 40 years of history to sort its self out.

So my daughter and I, we've started watching Firefly. Those same feuds show up, and the same questions get asked, and we grapple with them safely on the couch with the laptop and the screen. In the end, we're talking about family, and that's pretty special.

I know TV isn't the only answer. It might not even be a good one. But it's hard to battle that swift emergence of reticence that keeps pace with your kid's adolescence. If you can get your kid watching something with you, then you got a safe place to talk and be together. And in my opinion, that's a win. Thanks, Joss Whedon; Firefly is a hell of a show. I do believe it's going to make my holidays brighter.

Steve Schlozman's first novel, The Zombie Autopsies, was published in March. More relevant to this post, Steve's first academic paper exploring popular culture discussed Mr. Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That show, by the way, is next on the list for my daughter and me.

 

Steven Schlozman, M.D., is an Associate Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School.

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