How I Lost Television (and might find it again)

Sarah Buttenwieser
6 min readMar 13, 2024


Cows, Williamsburg MA, Spring 2020

Last night, my daughter, from the hallway, asked, “Mom, why don’t you watch Friends already?” She heard me laughing at a clip posted to one of the Instagram accounts that serve snippets from program, which ran from 1994–2004. After Matthew Perry’s death, I read many long, sad celebrity posts about him and watched videos about him. I couldn’t figure out why I was rubbernecking on his death. Then, the feed offered me Friends’ clips, first presented as sad or bittersweet because, “Matthew…” I began to watch them.

I didn’t watch Friends all that much. When it debuted, I was living in London. A year later, I had a baby, and the best comfort television proved to be Law & Order. I knew the early seasons by heart. Somehow, gritty crimes and the legal system’s minutiae provided companionship at two in the morning — I nursed while reruns played (they comprised practically the entire A&E network in those days). I knew Friends well enough; there were those spazzy football playing scenes, the on-again off-again romance between Ross and Rachel, how the across the hall apartments were too nice for the characters, setting up inflated expectations for an entire generation of aspiring New Yorkers, the Cheers-ness of Central Perk, and obviously, Rachel’s hairstyle. I knew about Monica and Chandler’s marriage, and how their departure for the burbs ended the Friends’ era. Although I remember very few of the scenes featured in the clips, they are all familiar because everyone living through that decade knew these characters.

The algorithm means that if one clip plays, another will appear soon thereafter. I tend to watch two to four of them at a time. I probably watch each one nearly twice through since I often don’t see the very beginning, which sometimes sets up the joke. Many times, like last night when my daughter commented from the hallway, I laugh, audibly. I think I’m wasting my time.

Sometimes, there’s a clip of the cast reminiscing about their tenure on the show, or one of the ensemble members appears on a chat show. Famously, they bargained for their salaries as a group. Very often, as I watch, I think about the fact that Matthew Perry struggled with addiction so mightily, how he wrote a long memoir chronicling this, which I didn’t read. I contemplate how cruel this disease is, how even all the money doesn’t guarantee one’s health or happiness. Although these actors were set up with immense wealth after this huge success, they still had — almost all of them still have — the rest of their lives to keep living. No one stays young. Matt LeBlanc went fully silver, work done to at least some of the cast’s faces. Between peals of laughter for some perfectly hilarious moment, I’m not laughing, I’m thinking about aging, mental health, dying. I’m thinking that Courtney Cox makes videos I find insufferable. I think I should watch The Morning Show.

But I no longer watch television. Before stumbling upon these clips, I rarely clicked on any videos. I am a person who loved television. I was devoted to a couple of series when November 8th, 2016, happened, the results of which I watched roll in. The friends who’d come to witness herstory — a watch party, as we’d had sometimes had for the Oscars, and Billy and Ellyn’s wedding on thirtysomething — left in varying states of anxious despair, depending upon what time they bailed. Our lives, as we knew them, changed. It was a moment when I experienced the deepest pit of my stomach — and reaffirmed that such a pit truly exists. November 9th, I was alone at the television when Hillary, in purple, appeared, to concede. I cried. I kept crying. Crying morphed to rage in the months that followed. I raged. Obsessively, I followed the news. The world felt like it was imploding. I was imploding, that’s for sure. Fear and anxiety and anger replaced sleep. Rachel Maddow replaced Nashville. The more worked up Rachel got, the more worked up I got. I called congress ceaselessly, sent pithy postcards to the White House, marched in my little region, in D.C. On a trip the weekend of the March for Science, I marched in San Jose. By 2019, I’d dropped nighttime MSNBC. When the pandemic began, I took the television out of my room so that I wouldn’t watch the same no news fearmongering twenty-minute cycles of so much worry repeated until terror was embedded inside of me. I swore off television.

Obviously, television wasn’t necessary to experience fear. Four years ago, hypervigilance had me scrubbing and worrying, seeking toilet paper, cleansers, and ramen noodles, trying to become an epidemiologist overnight. Our household made no sourdough bread. No one drank wine. We ate many M&M’s. We zombie walked through that first spring and approximated homeschooling a sixth grader. I noticed flowers. Each bud signaled hope; each bloom was a full-blown miracle. Months in, we went to get soft serve ice cream one night. It was a big outing for us. In the car on the highway — I hadn’t been on the highway in months — I was mesmerized by the headlights’ beams and the sensation of moving quickly through darkness. I’d barely driven. Once a week, I braved the grocery store, shopping for two households. The aisles felt narrow. Everyone was afraid to bump into anyone else. There wasn’t any pasta. By the time I reached the cash register, I pushed a mountainous cart the contents of which cost a small fortune. We got a heater for our front porch.

Neighbor encourages social distancing 2020
There was some baking 2020

I should have turned to television. I was too agitated for it, though. We awaited leadership. Instead, I flashed in my mind over and over to the Kate McKinnon photo from SNL with her as Hillary holding a director’s sign that read: HE WILL KILL US ALL. Police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. There were more protests, more pain. Eventually, there was school again, slowly more “normalcy,” now in quotes, resumed, and then vaccines. Still, no matter who you talked to, this virus — or its entrails — remained the main conversation topic. More black and brown people were dying from the virus. All horrible things intertwined. There was another election, an attempted theft of results, insurrection. Eventually, we witnessed the inauguration of Joe Biden. Even as more normalcy returned, nothing was the same. Lots of things seemed to be terribly broken, still seem terribly broken, as if the pandemic revealed all the fissures that we’d been able to ignore before this onslaught of duress. There are attempts to restore ourselves to business as usual. But we cannot do it. There’s understaffing. There’s discontent. The Supreme Court is dismantling voting rights, abortion rights, educational access, just to name a few. Trump, now king of the GOP, is ahead in the polls, despite 91 felony counts pending trials, plural. He owes half a billion dollars for his wrongdoings, so far.

Matthew Perry wasn’t the only celebrity to die in the fall of 2023. I can’t say his was the death that saddened me most. Somehow, though, his loss touched me and his work pulled me toward choppy Friends’ moments in laugh-sized bites. I don’t want to watch the absurdly domiciled, given their jobs all-white cast through those years; I want these glimmers. I want to hear Elliot Gould intone “Rachel Karen Green” to his pregnant, unwed daughter, so that she will promise him the certainty a wedding. I want Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe to chime in that the best love song is about the guy from Who’s the Boss. I want her to sing, “Hold me closer, Tony Danza…” Like the rapture I gleaned from every petal that terrified spring four years and five million years ago and yesterday at once, I’m still trying hard to allow myself the simplicity of silly joy I lost along the way.

Noticing Joy Spring 2020
Silliness, crafting evidence Spring, 2020



Sarah Buttenwieser

Writer, brainstormer, networker — follow me on Twitter @standshadows