What We Talk About When We Talk Only About TV

The four of us are jammed into a booth at Heartland Brewery a few weeks before the 2016 election. My brother and his girlfriend sit across from my father and me, and the air around us is tense. Our menus are folded on the table in front of us, except for April’s, who holds one up to hide her face from the elephant in the room. We’ve been happily catching up until now, but it was bound to rear its ugly head at some point.

“Look, I know I’m in the wrong company to be saying this,” my dad starts, “but I think it’s about time we elected someone in this country who will actually lead for once.”

My brother takes a huge swig of his drink, but I can’t keep quiet. “You actually think Donald fucking Trump will be a leader? He’s a petulant child.”

“I certainly don’t love everything the guy says,” Dad continues, sipping at his own drink, “but he’ll be a lot better for this country than Hillary.”

“You have a daughter,” Matt counters. “How could you want to vote for a person who talks about women in such a disgusting way?”

The hair on the back of my arm is standing up. I’d like for nothing more than to change my dad’s mind, but I know I won’t. The whole discussion is futile, and I’m sad it was even brought up in the first place. April lets out a deep sigh and says, “Can we talk about something else?”

Matt and I are still in attack mode, ready to go tit for tat all night. My dad laughs. “No need to get uncomfortable, guys, I just wanted to have a friendly debate.” He takes his phone out of his pocket, chuckling more as April continues to shield her face, covering her nose. “Let me take a picture of you: the mediator.”

We share a laugh and, after a moment of silence, I ask, “Have you caught up with Mr. Robot yet, Dad?”

“Oh, no, I rewatched the last few episodes of season one on the way here,” he says, relaxing, “but I have season two on my iPad.”

“Ugh, catch up, will you? I need you to see it. Craig Robinson is incredible this season.”

I don’t bring up the easy parallels of Mr. Robot’s Evil Corp and our country’s impending chaos—instead I focus on the show’s insane plot twists and fantastic character development. The rest of the night goes by with ease because we’ve chosen to move past the things we differ on and onto what we all love: television. One of the easiest ways for people who fundamentally disagree to connect.

I have happily inherited a lot from my father: my tall yet husky stature, my round face, my affinity for working with computers, and my utter obsession with TV. Ideologically, though, we are cut from a very different cloth. I, like my mother, am a bleeding-heart liberal who subsists on venting my feelings to anyone who will listen. He, on the other hand, is a practical conservative who would much rather deal with his own matters privately, on his own.

For a period of time growing up, at home and later still in college, I thought there was something intrinsically broken about our relationship. That our inability to see eye to eye on a political or emotional level meant it was tarnished in some way. That, because we didn’t agree on the things we thought defined us, we’d never find common ground on anything that wasn’t superficial. And that broke my heart, but I had no idea what to do about it.

Our differences have certainly caused tensions between us, but that isn’t to say we aren’t close with one another. In fact, for as long as I’ve been on my own, I’ve spoken with my father at length on the phone at least once a week (and during more tumultuous periods, daily). We don’t always agree, but he supports every decision I’ve ever made, and I’ll appreciate him endlessly for that.

“Hey, Dad. How’s it going?” I sigh into the phone. It’s the summertime and I’ve received a small, scheduled bonus with my company. I’d originally only planned to spend a few months at this job but hit my one-year anniversary last week. I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it, so I call my dad to discuss.

“It’s good, bud. Sitting by the pool with Tob,” he muses. “What about you?”

He worked in the same office building for decades, despite the company being acquired some years back. Now he gets to work from home on any day he isn’t traveling to one of their international offices. I’m jealous, but the man has more than earned a life in the backyard with a drink on the table and a dog in his lap.

“Oh, I’m all right. I’ve been with Indeed for a year now. Trying to figure out what I want to do next,” I say, staring out my apartment window at the hair salon across the street, enjoying the protection my air conditioning offers from the sweltering heat outside.

“You’ve got benefits, right?” he asks matter-of-factly.

“Yeah, and the time-off policy is nice, but I’m feeling pretty creatively stifled,” I admit, wanting desperately for him to validate my disatisfaction. My longing for something . . . more.

“But you’ve got a job with a good salary,” he starts, confident in his line of reasoning. “They’re taking care of you. You could work your way up, if you wanted to. Have a career there.”

“I don’t think that’s right for me. I might end up leaving.”

“Promise me you won’t burn any bridges,” he chides. “You never know when you might need to go back there.”

“Of course not,” I promise. I trail off, knowing intrinsically this wasn’t the person to talk to about this sort of thing. Dad’s a career man, and I appreciate that about him, but I’ve never felt that kind of loyalty myself. “What’re you watching these days?”

“Linda and I finally started Game of Thrones. We’re almost done with season two. We’re obsessed,” he says, and we finish our chat by focusing not on my career aspirations but on the charisma of Tyrion Lannister and the intrigue of Westeros as a whole.

There is an unspoken rule in my family that the easiest parts of life to talk about are often the ones that exist outside of reality. If we’ve broached a topic that makes us uncomfortable, we’ll change the subject as quickly as we can to a podcast or the most recent episode of a show we like, just so we can shy away from the things eating away at our insides. This is a learned behavior that manifests in all of my siblings, in some way or another.

We are experts in the art of avoidance.

For as long as my father has had his job, I couldn’t explain to you what it is that he does to save my life. I know he works in computer security and that for a long time he’s been in charge of protecting an international insurance company, but I have no idea what he actually does all day. My easiest line of comparison comes from some of his favorite shows, like The Office or The IT Crowd—a cringeworthy group of socially awkward people who are forced to interact on a daily basis because of their job.

When I was a kid, we’d both come home at the end of a long day and crash on the couch together. We wouldn’t always speak a lot, but we’d put on one of these comedies and laugh for hours. Him spent from a day at the office, me glancing from the screen to this man who made me, wondering if that’s what life’s really like after school for people. For him.

I didn’t believe then that people as painfully obtuse as David Brendt, Michael Scott, or Maurice Moss actually existed in this world until I joined corporate culture myself. I don’t really understand how my dad has lasted as long as he has. I’m only five years out of college and I’m ready to quit my job, pack up a backpack, and run for the hills, whereas he’s been doing this for over thirty years. Sacrificing fifty, sixty, seventy hours of his waking life, week after week after week, with barely a vacation in sight.

It’s not that I don’t want to have that kind of commitment to my career. It’s just that I’m not ready to hedge my bets on the first line of work I fell into after graduating. I pursued my writing degree in undergrad with a goal in mind and a fire in my loins. My long-term plans may not have been exactly concrete at the time I graduated, but they certainly didn’t entail becoming an analog for Jim Halpert, trapped into transforming what was once an easy job into a career, overnight and without realizing it.

It’s January of my senior year of college, and I’ve sent my father an email I’ll come to regret. I’ve spent the last two years working through every secret I’ve ever kept, about my parents’ divorce and my own sexuality, and spilling them out onto the page in a series of personal essays. While I was writing them, he asked what I was spending so much time on in my nonfiction classes.

On the phone, when he brought it up, I froze. “Oh, stuff…and things,” I said before moving on, incapable of truly confronting him with every question I’d never been comfortable enough to ask. After a month or so of further work, I gather the courage to send him the first two pieces, with a long email explaining how I hadn’t written this to hurt anyone. I wasn’t trying to flaunt family secrets; I was trying to understand them as best I could through my own experiences.

I wait a week after sending him the essays without calling him, though I normally do every day. I am terrified at how he might react, but it feels necessary for me to keep going and finish the thing.

Finally, exactly seven days later, I call and ask how he is.

He sounds tired. “I’ve had a long day. How about you?”

“Yeah, me too.”

We don’t say anything for a moment, and my heart surges to my throat. I wonder if he’ll bring it up, if he’ll answer my questions. I want to ask if he saw the email, ask him what he thought of all of my work, but I just can’t.

Instead, one of us asks, “Did you see the newest Walking Dead?”

When I finish writing the project, that last line is as far as I’m ever able to get. He never addresses the pieces, and I have no idea if he’s read them. I try bringing it up right after I graduate, but he tenses up on the phone, and we again quickly move past it. I exhaust myself for years, being dissatisfied with this outcome. I wished so badly that he could confront the work I did to unpack my memories and allow us to truly talk about them.

I used to tell myself that, because he hasn’t shared as much of his own hopes and dreams with me as I have with him, there was nothing left to be done. But I realize now that isn’t true at all. I look back on the countless hours we’ve spent, quoting actors’ IMDB histories while mentioning a new show, that my father has shared more of himself with me than I’ve ever cared to admit.

The characters that Dad and I identify with help to define who we are as people, and our discussions about them bring us closer together. We spend years with them, watching them grow and fall in love and overthrow oppressive government organizations and fight zombies and sell paper and ride dragons into the sunset. We’re able to watch these stories with each other in real time and allow their very existence to consume our conversations for months afterward.

What makes this type of human connection any less valid than another?

My father and I’s personal narratives might not match up a hundred percent, and confronting tough truths may never get easier, but my dedication to storytelling has flourished because of our mutual love of television. Without his influence, I wouldn’t have the obsession with science-fiction that defines my writing. My compulsion to create and inhabit worlds outside of our own would be a ghost of what it is. And for that I will be forever indebted to him, regardless of whether or not we ever talk about it.

Art by Sam Twardy