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Can You Figure Out a Person Based on the Shows They Watch? Your Pressing TV Questions, Answered

Photo: ABC, NBC and VH1

Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture’s TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.

Are there times when you can figure a person out by the shows he or she is watching? Like if you asked someone, “Scandal or Homeland?” the answer could say a lot about a them. (I love both shows, but I’d pick Scandal.) Do you ever think about shows you like as a form of self-expression? —Darren

For most of my life, I subscribed to the High Fidelity theory: “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.” It makes for easy interactions, being able to discuss all those shared interests, and it makes for easy social sorting. All the people who want to chitchat about Fitz over here, and all the people who want to chitchat about Saul over there. Occasionally, messengers will be sent between the groups. We are what we like.

But then I watched the show Daisy of Love. I’m not defending that show or suggesting that it’s good or worthwhile, but … I did watch it, and even with my “all TV is for work!” excuse, this wasn’t for work. I watched Daisy of Love recreationally, and my guess is so did many Stay Tuned readers. And that doesn’t make us bad or trashy or stupid or worthless. We may or may not be those things, but our viewing habits aren’t the reason. Watching Mad Men doesn’t make you a serious person, though many serious people watch it, and watching Tattoo Nightmares doesn’t make you a mental featherweight, though plenty of dum-dums watch it. TV is a big part of my life, but it is not actually my entire life.

So, I don’t know how much we can tell about a person just by what they watch. I do think we can tell a lot about a person by the shows they treasure, though. If someone was going to Eternal Sunshine away my memories of Daisy of Love, I don’t think I’d be any different. But my favorites? Those shows do reflect and influence the way I see myself, and if someone thought that Sports Night was the cipher for the secret Margaret code, they’d be right. (I like people who try! Code cracked.) You picking Scandal over Homeland tells me a lot less than if you wrote in and said Scandal was one of your favorite shows ever, and that it captured your imagination in ways no other show has. Know people through their passions, not their preferences.

Like you, I really, really love Friends. I can watch (and sometimes prefer to watch) Friends rereuns over and over again. I was recently on maternity leave and couldn’t really focus on new shows, so in that time, I watched A LOT of Friends. Even though I’ve seen it so many times, this was the first time I realized that Friends is kind of homophobic. There’s the gay-panic jokes every time Joey and Chandler are too lovey-dovey or hug a little too long, Ross’s various grooming habits (teeth-whitening, tanning, using a face mask on his oily T-zone), Chandler’s “quality.” What really struck me, though, was the total disdain and lack of empathy Chandler has for his dad, and the way he’s played for laughs. I realize it was a different time when Friends was on the air and we’re living in a different era of gay and trans people being depicted on TV, but is this a problem for my favorite show? Am I being too sensitive? Can I still love Friends like I did before in spite of noticing this? —Sarah

Yeah, Friends is definitely homophobic. (And fat-phobic.) It also premiered 20 years ago, and reflected the mainstream values of its time — values that have changed, thanks to the hard work of many people.

Recognizing shortcomings is important, especially when they’re the kinds of shortcomings that marginalize and degrade people; ignoring lousy aspects of shows or movies or books we enjoy normalizes and perpetuates lousy depictions. So, sure, you can still love Friends, but why would you want to love it like you did before? Love it the way you see it know, with the things you know now and the values you have now. I love Friends, but I do not love its body or queer politics. Those things can be true at the same time.

I have a short window of opportunity for watching TV (mom of two young kids), usually an hour or so somewhere between 9 and 11 p.m. Because of that, I want whatever show I choose to watch to have a takeaway, enough gristle for me to chew on after I turn it off. I want to be able to learn something and/or ideally be given the opportunity to reassess givens/assumptions/POVs I may have had. And it kind of needs to be plausible (see: where The Killing went off the tracks). The ideal in this oeuvre for me would be The Wire (I still think about this show). I am not interested in Game of Thrones or fantasy; I want my precious hour to have meant something and added something to the way I work in the world. Any suggestions? —Megan

Secretly you are just asking for excellent shows, right? I can’t think of any shows that are really good but never give you anything to think about, nor can I think of a so-so show that still has plenty of stuff to think over.

So, good shows. I recommend The Shield and Homicide here constantly, but since you specifically mentioned The Wire, I feel obligated to mention them again. (Stay Tuned mentioned The Shield, everybody drink.) The Good Wife loves showing surprising sides of its characters, and Six Feet Under is all about giving you new ways to see and think about its stories. Enlightened will rattle around in your brain forever, in tender and good ways but also in some sad ways. Fargo has a lot of the rich stories you’re looking for.

The shows I think about the most and roll around in my brain for years are Mad Men and Deadwood. They’re two of the best-composed shows I’ve ever seen: Every scene has four other scenes happening inside it, every character contains multitudes, every camera angle is telling you something. They’re shows that have shocked me, and yet rewatching an episode sans shock does not diminish my enjoyment. The bad guys are good! The good guys are bad! The other thing these shows have in common with The Wire is that each show is about economy based on knowledge. Who knows what about whom, and what does that entitle one to? In what scenarios must one keep a secret? Who gets to be openly him- or herself, known fully to everyone, and does that make you freer, or does it make you trapped? Man, I could think about Deadwood all day. In fact, I think I’m gonna. Well, that, and Daisy of Love.

Can You Figure Out a Person by the TV They Like?