How to Watch TV When Nothing's On

Last night I was faced with a terrible dilemma. There I was, safely inside after braving the miserable cold, ready to sit down on the sofa and settle into a cozy night of TV-watching. But then, to my horror, I realized something awful: There was nothing on.

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Last night I was faced with a terrible dilemma. There I was, safely inside after braving the miserable cold, ready to sit down on the sofa and settle into a cozy night of TV-watching. But then, to my horror, I realized something awful: There was nothing on. Literally nothing airing at the moment that I wanted to watch. Not on broadcast networks, not on cable networks, not even a decent movie airing on any of the premiums. Worse still, I'd picked all my usual on demand trees bare over the weekend. Bound and determined to not suffer through a night of catching up on old issues of The New Yorker or finally finishing that damn novel that's been staring at me judgmentally since Christmas, I resorted to some unorthodox TV-watching tactics. So, in case you find yourself in a similar situation tonight (what, Modern Family, American Idol, American Horror Story, and CSI aren't enough for you?), or really any night in the near future, we're offering some tips.

Obviously, if you're some sort of space robot or, even worse, young person, you've probably got your computer or something hooked up to your TV, so you can do Netflix and Hulu and illicit illegal downloads if you're daring. Meaning you never have to worry about the actual TV schedule. But, if you're like me and don't know how to do that TV-hooky-uppy stuff and don't like watching things on your computer, here are three easy steps to squeeze every last drop out of that cable service you pay so much for.

There's more on demand than just primetime or premium. For those of you with better cable service than Time Warner (does such a thing exist???) this might not even factor in. But, in case you've not yet figured this out (which, come on, it's 2013), if your On Demand is divided up into categories like "Primetime" and "Premium," there are also "Entertainment" and "Lifestyle" and other categories beyond. Which means there is a whole wealth of other junk to watch other than the major network or pay-cable shows. On my "Entertainment" channel, for example, there's the obvious stuff like Bravo, MTV, USA, AMC, etc. etc. But there are also less-discussed networks like BBC America, which I used last night to watch the first episode of the new miniseries Ripper Street. The show, set in post-Jack the Ripper London and starring Matthew Macfadyen, isn't the most interesting thing in the world, but the first episode at least traffics in enough sordid murder, tawdry twists, and old-timey charm to justify its hour and fifteen-minute run. There's plenty else on BBC America as well — like Dominic West's The Hour — but you won't find it if you solely stick to NBC and HBO.

Make the curious acquaintance of the way-high channels. Many of us tend to stop scrolling through our listing guide at a certain point. For me it's just past the Travel Channel (88 on New York Time Warner). Past that lies a no man's land, a red waste if you will, until the premium channels pick up in the 200s. But, desperate times and all that, last night I pressed on, up and up and up into the 90s and beyond. I've ventured up this lonely way a few times before, to check out the rare Logo show (1 Girl 5 Gays — hi, Dean!) or Degrassi on The N. But last night I was pleased to, if not discover, at least be remidned that there are also unheralded channels (calling them networks seems generous) like Chiller and Cloo, which rerun mystery and sci-fi/horror series from the recent-ish past. Last night, The Secret Circle, that canceled-after-a-season CW show about witches, was on Chiller. That's dumb fun. Tonight on Cloo are reruns of the actually-not-terrible USA show Necessary Roughness, followed by a few odd House episodes and some NCIS. So this isn't destination, appointment television. But, again, you're in a bind. You're a weirdo who must watch television. There is no other option. So, settle for what you've got.

Free movies! Back to the annals of On Demand, there's also always the "Free Movies" section. If you don't want to pay for something, wander over to the free movies section. Sure it's mostly junk — the FX movies are all cut and edited for TV, so while it might sound fun to watch something mindless like Legion or Max Payne, you're not actually getting the full movie. (If you watch anything in FX's small movie collection, go with the unexpectedly fun romantic comedy Ghost Town). But there's also Sundance Channel, which currently has Don Roos's criminally underrated Happy Endings (in its unedited entirety, I believe) and Noah Baumbach's excellent, biting The Squid and the Whale. (There's also High Art and Wristcutters: A Love Story if you're looking for some second-tier indies.) And of course there are the old-old movies, like Some Like It Hot and Sparatacus! Zorba the Greek. (And This Is Spinal Tap!) If you're really feeling desperate, there's always the Lifetime Movie Network and, gulp, the ABC Family movies. But those should only be used for when you've watched absolutely everything else on television. Which, after a few weeks of really digging like this into the deep trunk of modern, million-channel cable, just might become the case.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.