Like so many others, I spent several hours over the past week sitting in an improbably aloft tin can while a stranger’s hairy elbows encroached on my personal space. Unlike most previous flights I’ve been on, however, this trip included the experience of individual television screens on the back of each seat, and the option to pay six dollars so that I could watch live television. From the sky. And yet, despite my intense TV addiction, my complete helplessness as a captive audience, and an oh-so-easy credit card swiper right in front of me, I resisted the urge to pay. On four separate occasions.
Of course, this did not deter me from watching the full ten-minute preview and frantically flipping through each channel to see if Chef Academy was airing, and because I have previously found Chef Academy completely un-interesting, I started to wonder why a show that is terrible when on the ground suddenly becomes fascinating mid-air. I can barely muster the enthusiasm to sit through an episode of Law and Order on my couch, but in a tiny, cramped airplane chair, I’m riveted. “Who could possibly have committed such a heinous crime?” I wonder. Obviously some of the answer is mere novelty – it’s not just Law and Order, it’s Law and Order in a plane! Look how many channels there are! (Twenty-five). I am old enough to remember what it’s like to sit on a plane before any accessible electronic device had the capability or battery life to play a full movie, so my residual sensation of awe probably still remains. Even so, I have long been able to pull out my laptop and watch whatever I have stored on my hard drive, and it seems like technology is not enough of an explanation for my pleasure in watching Sandra Lee (most despised of Food Network stars) whisk packaged white sauce mix into white wine.
My working theory on why airborne television is so freshly fascinating comes from this two-year-old slate piece on SkyMall. After considering why SkyMall has so many unnecessarily fancy watches, Ron Rosenbaum suggests that it has “something to do with the fact that when one is up in the air, however familiar, on some limbic level of the brain, one is aware of how absurd it is to be suspended eight miles high in a metal container” and the many fancy watches allow us to capture and tame the time we suddenly feel is on the brink of slipping away. Rosenbaum also close reads an ad for a chicken-wing caddy with the title “Where the Wings Have No Shame,” and comes to the conclusion that we need a place to hide away our discarded chicken bones because “the more one thinks of wings, not chicken wings or airline wings, or even the wax wings of Icarus, or the waxwings of Nabokov, the more one thinks rather of Andrew Marvell’s phrase for the onrush of mortality, ‘time’s winged chariot.’” In other words, somewhere deep on our brains, being in an airplane reminds us that we’re actually quite close to death, and SkyMall both capitalizes on and assuages that fear.
I’m convinced that something like this, although not necessarily related to swiftly-arriving death, happens with airplane television. Despite its ubiquity, air travel still requires a suspension of disbelief – it forces us to turn off the deeply-held fear of falling and just accept that we can calmly sit eight miles up while sipping ginger ale. It is a fictional space, and once you buy into that fiction, all other fiction becomes similarly plausible. Chef Academy, which I object to largely because it seems far more scripted than other reality shows, suddenly contains a persuasive, compelling competition. Law and Order, the most codified formula television available, becomes unpredictable because you’re watching TV in the sky! Who knows what could happen!
I’m sure that some people, including one person in particular who was sitting next to me on the plane, might feel moved to remark that air travel is fully explicable and no more fictional than sitting on the couch. That may be true, but I’d like to point out that said person was watching Chef Academy just as closely as I was. There must have been some kind of magic happening.