A few weeks back, I spent a blissful Saturday night at home alone watching Sweet Home Alabama. It was not the first time I’d seen Sweet Home Alabama; it was not even the fifth time I’d seen Sweet Home Alabama, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of the experience, or my pity for Patrick Dempsey when Reese Witherspoon chose the other man. (Not that I’m Team Andrew, but it is kind of a rough deal, no?) The only hiccup was when the cable channel facilitating this re-watch announced that it would be airing The Devil Wears Prada the following Saturday at the same time. Dammit, I have plans that night is an actual thought I had. It did not occur to me that I own The Devil Wears Prada on DVD.
This is because — as anyone who has ever lost an afternoon to Apollo 13 or Overboard can attest — watching a certain kind of movie on TV is more fun. There’s almost no barrier to entry (meaning: no hours lost rifling through Netflix or Amazon Instant or your DVD/Blu-ray collection), it lowers the stakes quality-wise, and it feels more communal. All I need is one vaguely memorable plot (“Oh, is this the one where Denzel Washington stops a nuclear war on a submarine?”) and maybe a montage of some sort. (Training or shopping will suffice.) Cheesy dialogue is welcome — it blends in with the commercials. I’d also take snappy dialogue that remains delightful upon multiple viewings. Predictable twists? Yes, please, I would like to read Twitter and still not miss anything. Really the only thing that doesn’t work for me are those movies predicated on seemingly never-ending CGI set pieces full of flying and super-villains and unnecessary explosions. And this is a problem, because those are so many of the movies that Hollywood prefers to make these days. The Cable Rerun movie has fallen on tough times.
It is probably more precise to say that some movie genres have fallen on tough times, and those types of movies happen to work well if you’re couch bound and channel flipping. Rom-coms are dying out, and so are legal thrillers, as well as all the formulaic, inspirational dramas that Toms Cruise and Hanks used to make in the nineties. Those are my type of Cable Rerun movies; their familiar structure and beats benefit from repetition. Dramatic moments like “You can’t handle the truth” are infinitely more satisfying because I know they’re coming. The familiarity is comforting. Not so for bomb-happy blockbusters: Spectacle requires more spectacle. “Oh this is the part where the Decepticons destroy Chicago!” is not something I’ll ever say. Once they’ve blown up a town, then they have to blow up a city, and then a country. That’s why no building has survived a movie in the past several years.
Also, frankly, those giant explosions don’t work on a tiny screen. The first two Iron Man movies have been in heavy rotation on FX the last couple of years, and Robert Downey Jr.’s banter is perfectly enjoyable hangover viewing, but it all falls off a cliff when those suits start zooming. The J.J. Abrams Star Trek starts off strong, thanks to a truly devastating (and Chris Hemsworth–featuring) father-son opening, but I can hardly see what’s happening on Eric Bana’s creepy clawship. The Fast & Furious movies are slightly better, but all that TV zooming starts to look like NASCAR after a while. (No offense to NASCAR; it’s just not a movie.) Anything about robots or aliens necessarily sacrifices a human component, which is often what draws me into a Cable Rerun anyway. Will I be compelled to watch any of this summer’s blockbusters when I randomly come across them on TV a few years down the line? Man of Steel? Elysium? Star Trek Into Darkness? Pacific Rim? Probably not. No, what compels me to linger is when I’m flipping through channels and recognize some famous actor wearing regrettable clothes in a movie made before he hit it big.
Sometimes that’s also what causes my friends to stop. The joy of finding 8 Mile on cable is nothing compared to the joy of someone texting me to announce, “Hey, 8 Mile is on cable right now.” So many of us watch TV and movies in isolation or near-isolation now, without even a Twitter conversation to join because everyone briefly talked about that episode or plot twist two months ago and then quickly and immediately moved on. With Cable Reruns, I know it’s likely that other people are sitting on their couches crying to The Shawshank Redemption right at the same moment that I am. It’s wonderful and communal.
Just go to a theater, is the obvious retort, or suffer through Sharknado. Watch Netflix with a buddy. Sure, I do all those things. But the serendipity of cable watching — that magical, “Yes, I found You’ve Got Mail twenty minutes after it started!” moment — will always make it a special experience to me. Plus, You’ve Got Mail is just a better movie than Sharknado or the Sandra Bullock deep cuts on Netflix. I should know; I also own it on DVD.