Binging is the New Black

On Valentine's Day this year, my husband and I went out to a lovely romantic dinner at a posh new farm-to-table restaurant, strolled through the park in our stylish winter coats, met friends for an artisan cocktail at a nearby gastropub, and ended the night on our balcony, watching the lights of the city.

Just kidding. We watched 10 hours of House of Cards. 

That's all we did. Literally, for two days.  We watched House of Cards in our pajamas punctuated only by short, bitter bathroom breaks ("I'm seriously only pausing this for 45 seconds so you'd better finish!") and a rotating parade of of paper-plated leftovers. 

Why, you ask, were we so slovenly and pathetic and hermit-like? Because House of Cards is a Netflix original series, and Netflix in all its modern sensibility knows exactly what the kids want: all of the things at once. So, instead of releasing House of Cards weekly, piecemeal, like network and cable and pay channels do, they released the entire second season all at once, on Friday, February 14.  And at my house, we bought in and hunkered down.

Binging on TV shows is not reserved to shows that are released this way; for many years Netflix and other streaming channels have enabled the unpopular and obsessive among us to waste huge chunks of nights and weekends devouring entire seasons of shows to the detriment of our friends and our jobs and our hygiene. Portlandia (a show I have binge-watched) knowingly satarized our penchant for the binge a few years ago, when Fred and Carrie lose their jobs (and minds) over Battlestar Galactica.


But Netflix is the first distributor to really sanction this method of watching, to encourage and enable our terrible TV orgies.  A ritual that used to feel new and kinda naughty is now the intended way to watch.  What does that mean for how we absorb and process and relate to our favorite shows?

Since HBO's The Sopranos (a little show about opera singers in the 2000s, you've probably never heard of it), television has rapidly become America's best and favorite medium. (It's not hard to name ten television shows better than every Best Picture Winner of the last decade.)  And the renaissance of television seemed not only revolutionary, but also to reflect well on American culture. No longer were we satisfied with 22-minute blocks of repetitive, solvable, cookie-cutter controversies imagined within the limits of a sound stage, nor were we sated with two-hour cinema visits filled with car crashes and road trips and forgettable types and tropes.  We wanted depth, we wanted breadth, we wanted deeply-troubled, intricate characters with flaws and flesh and inner struggles, we wanted real, immersive worlds for them to live in populated with ensemble casts and moral ambiguity.  And we wanted to watch and care about them for years -- years! -- and see them grow and change and evolve as more than just villians-with-hearts-of-gold, but as real people do.

When it was just The Sopranos it was one thing. But then it was Six Feet Under, then it was Lost, then Weeds, then Dexter and Mad Men and Friday Night Lights. Then people started going back and figuring out about The Wire. Then everyone got a box set of The West Wing and no one left their dorm for a week. Then it was Breaking Bad and all hell broke loose: jobs were lost, relationships soured, health deteriorated; not since actual crystal meth has anything set back American twenty-somethings like the five epic, unstoppable seasons of Breaking Bad. 

Even in Breaking Bad's wake (aka rehab), we still have a cavalcade of new vices: Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones (I watched all three seasons in three weeks) True Detective (watched one season in three days), Homeland, House of Cards, and maybe my favorite, Orange is the New Black.

Wow, that was just a list of TV shows. I got carried away.  Anyway, the point is: the sheer magnitude of quality television hours is both insurmountable and endlessly addictive.  We've turned an art form that should have been so good for our hyped-up little internet brains -- shows are long, so they can build slowly and epically, like a novel, and they reward attention-paying and nuance-noting and comprehension and recollection -- and exploded it with our entitled, Veruca Salt-y case of the gimmie-gimmies.  We want the second season, and we want it now!

It can't be good for us, all of this binging; that's why it's called "binging," an inherently reckless, bloated, term. And I'm not even talking the detrimental physical effects like lost sleep, or, as the Wall Street Journal discussed, the sorrow of the post-binge hangover.  Rather, I'm talking about how our way of watching might hurt our ability to actually connect with the shows themselves.  Are we capable of watching 10 hours of television and really absorbing it?  I'll tell you: people make comments about scenes from House of Cards that I don't remember, even though my eyes were glued to the television for days.  While close-proximity watching may tie together plotlines and references to some degree, there's also a tipping point at which your brain is oversaturated with Underwood, deadened by his drawl and desensitized to some of the should-be-shocking revelations.  To be good, television needs cliffhangers; it needs worry and wonder and speculation, it needs its audience to go to that truly engaged, imaginative place where we fill in the characters' futures in our minds. Without that space, that break, that breather, we don't connect with it the same way.  Watching too much, too soon, is a spoiler in its own right. (See also: Stop Binge-Watching TV, at Slate.)

So how do we stop television from being such a race to the finish?  It requires a quality we never needed before when it came to innocent television: self control. Like everything else in the easy-access landscape, we can't even trust ourselves around TV anymore. (And Netflix, like some Libertarian drug dealer, absolutely refuses to save us from ourselves.)  So, next month when the entire second season of Orange is the New Black premieres, I'm going to try really hard to slow down, to digest it, enjoy isolated episodes for what they are, drag it out over more than a few days or weeks.  But I can't promise anything, so be patient when you don't hear from me until I emerge -- bloodshot and blinking into the strange summer sun -- on June 10th.
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Daniel
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May 14, 2014 at 1:03 PM delete

Do you think, not in your case and not in the case of anyone whom I know and see post regularly on Facebook, that binge watching also has a competitive quality to it? "I'm watched all 10 hours in a row." "Yeah well I watched 10 hours in 9 hours." Or that social media also contributes by rewarding us (and giving us those nice little endorphin boosts with every like) for talking about how quickly we watched something. I guess I only bring this up because I'm afraid of becoming addicted to "likes" almost as much as I'm afraid of tripping and falling in public.

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