By Tim Hayes

We upgraded our cable TV service not too long ago, opening up expansive (and expensive) new vistas of options to waste time vegetating on the sofa.

Indulging in one such stretch the other day, I discovered the “Buzzr” network, where they show old game shows. Clicking on something called “Blockbusters,” I settled in with a cold iced tea and a bowl of barbeque chips for an hour or so of watching contestants clad in horrendous fashion choices and even more horrific hairdos.

On “Blockbusters,” two teams competed by answering general trivia questions, trying to connect pieces from one side of the puzzle board to the other. A single player on one team, a pair of people on the other. Pretty simple stuff. The stretch of shows on tap for me first aired in 1981.

But as the games rolled on, answer after answer, something about this stupid old game show started pecking at my brain. Something felt very different, very out of place. Some aspect of the dynamic playing out on my flat-screen HD – between the buzzers and bells and flashing lights on the cheesy 40-year-old stage – began to stick out in sharp relief. After another episode, I finally figured it out.

The players were happy. Clapping for each other. Shaking hands after losing a match. Genuinely, sincerely having a good time together, even as they competed.

The fact that such displays of grace and fair play struck me as an anomaly made me immediately sad. And a little angry.

Today, competition at every level – from pee-wee baseball to presidential politics – feels so strident. So harsh. So full of animosity, ill-will, and self-centered attitudes. I always thought maintaining such a negative environment would not be possible for long, but I’m beginning to amend that assumption.

Even on something as innocuous as game shows, you see it. On “Family Feud,” watch one team cross their arms in an “X” pattern and glare at their opponents, when a third “strike” looms. They’re not thinking about laughing together, or shaking hands to congratulate the other side for a good game. They actively, heartily want their opponents to fail because they deserve to win. Defeat isn’t enough. The real goal is imposing embarrassment and claiming superiority.

We are a full year away from the 2020 election, and I don’t know if I can stand it already. The number of ads for local offices to be decided this week has become suffocating and unbearable. Can you imagine when seats in the House, Senate, and the biggest enchilada of them all, the presidency, are at stake?

The distortions and lies used to be bad enough. Now we can look forward to pure gutter nastiness, formerly out-of-bounds personal attacks, and every underhanded trick in the book – compounded exponentially by cyber inference and misuses. Somehow Twitter became admirable last week by promising to not run any political ads this election season. Holding out hope that Facebook follows suit, but not much.

Along the way from 1981 to today, civility, honor, integrity, and truthfulness in political debate became a truly “blockbuster” idea. An exception. Something that stands out from the pack. What a shameful thing to have to admit. Perhaps the right candidates can steer us back to a time we can someday remember as worthy of our nation, our culture, our vote.

Until then, I’ll keep watching shows on the various streaming services, for one simple reason. They never show commercials.

Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes