I want to talk about binging.
First of all: I agree with you. It’s amazing that we live in a world that has this much media. Have you seen all the great shows and movies out there? Fantastic. And all the different ways we can access them? It’s crazy.
The best thing about it all, though, is the unprecedented level of control we have over when we watch things. From premium services like Netflix and Hulu to cable companies like Comcast and DirectTV to the television channels themselves, everyone is heavily invested in the streaming content game. What they’re actually selling, though, is power. Choices are powerful and the better choices a company provides the more powerful the user feels. “I can watch The Dog Whisperer anytime I want!” We cackle. “LAW AND ORDER AT 2AM ON A TUESDAY!” we shout, tiny CEOs of an itsy-bitsy tailored media empire.
Incredible Cosmic Power!
It is my unhappy conclusion that we have been corrupted by that power and, like a CEO who has the water fixtures in her bathroom replaced with brandy taps, we’ll wake up one morning and realize that healthy people don’t behave in this manner (and also that brandy attracts flies and burns like the dickens when you get it in your eyes).
Look, binging is inherently unhealthy. It just is. The word had a completely negative connotation until people started applying it to TV but now that we can watch Brian Cranston make meth for 14 hours straight it’s suddenly sexy.
It was never supposed to be this way. Seriously, think about how this happened. When Netflix launched (ancient history, I know, but important) they were a service that allowed you to rent movies through the mail. There were very few TV shows compared to what we have now and no streaming content at all. Much like today, for a monthly fee you could consume as much content as you were capable of, BUT in those days you were limited to just a couple DVDs at a time, creating a system in which the customer felt pressure to consume things quickly so that they could consume more and thus get their perceived money’s worth. When you have a 2-4 day turnaround to get your next movie things begin to feel urgent.
This is How Some of Us Watched The Wire
This was fairly successful but things really took off when Netflix began carrying box sets of current TV shows. Suddenly you could get 6 episodes of Lost mailed to your house at the same time, but you had to finish ’em quick or else how would you be able to see the next 6 episodes? And so scheduled binges wormed their way into the average American household. Netflix noticed how often these things were being rented and how quickly they were turned around and sent back and started carrying more shows, started offering them to watch online and now…well…here we are. It’s a fascinating development but it was in no way the plan. We brought it on ourselves.
It’s worth noting that Netflix has now embraced this idea so thoroughly that they release entire seasons of their shows at once specifically so that we can binge on them. That doesn’t mean you actually have to watch them that way, though. Don’t let Netflix tell you what to do! Let me do that!
When I was a kid and they showed the same thing back to back for a particularly long time it was called a “marathon.” It was reserved for things with some sort of cult appeal like The Twilight Zone or Godzilla movies. In those days they believed only huge nerds would be willing to participate in something like that. Now, sitting on a couch for 2 days watching dudes in rubber suits destroy model cities is about as far from a marathon as you can get so I’m totally on board with the shift in terminology. Sadly, while you might expect that calling something “binging” would hurt it as a practice, the truth is that people like binge-watching so much that it’s weakened the entire term. Binging on things just doesn’t sound as bad these days. Language is funny that way.
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As with other types of binging, eventually you run out of the stuff you want to consume and end up taking down whatever is available. Which, I guess, is my way of comparing 2 and a Half Men to a decades-old box of Ritz crackers. Ask yourself: have you ever watched multiple episodes of a show you didn’t particularly like because Netflix just kept queuing up the next one? Now ask yourself: isn’t avoiding that exactly the reason we all got Netflix to begin with?
There is a reason movies aren’t 9 hours long. It’s the same reason college classes don’t usually meet every day: things that are worth experiencing usually take time to process. It’s to your benefit to continue thinking about stuff you’ve learned even after you’ve learned it. Think about your last 4+ episode binge. You probably got a lot out of the first episode, and I bet you remember how the 4th episode ended, but some of the details between episodes 2 and 3 are a bit hazy. Most shows were not written to be consumed this way, and you may well have missed out on an important part of the experience.
Take Mad Men for example. That show is filled with powerful moments, particularly at the end of each hour-long episode. These are intended to stay with you, to have an impact lasting longer than the 30 seconds it takes Netflix to provide you with resolution. Peggy Olson’s refusal to look at her baby was supposed to sit in your head for months! Is she giving the kid up for adoption? Will she spend the rest of the show raising a baby she can’t even acknowledge? Will she whip the baby through the window of Pete’s office? Binge-watch the series and you’ll never have to wonder! The questions will answer themselves automatically about a minute after they’ve been asked. There’s just so much less investment in the experience, both mentally and emotionally.
I get it. I really do. I’m a huge Arrested Development fan and when Netflix released a new season I binged on it. In fact, I watched the entire series in one 36 hour sitting. Looking back now I have only vague memories of most of it and that’s something I regret. I could have taken my time and really savored the thing and instead I turned it into a pie eating contest where the only reward was the act of gorging myself on the pie. Once it was over all I was left with was a stomach ache.
It’s tough to moderate consumption. We are living in the golden age of serialized entertainment. Every channel on TV has at least one must-watch show, and the number of quality web series being made is truly staggering. It’s impossible to keep up with it all and that makes people feel like they have to watch all the time or they’ll be missing out. That’s the thing, though: it’s impossible to keep up. You are setting yourself an unreachable goal, and not the “reach for the stars” kind that improves you as a person.
Some of you are probably saying “Well, yeah, but I work hard all day, and when I get home I just want to throw something on and not think about it for the rest of the night. I’m going to be sitting on the couch for 4 hours anyway, let me watch what I want!” And look, do whatever you want, these are just words on the internet, they don’t have the power to make you do anything. But you are ignoring a huge opportunity. You already know you’re going to be watching hours of stuff a night, so you have a vested interest in making sure what you watch is actually good, that you are actually getting something out of it, and these days that doesn’t take much extra effort.
Just Let Me Watch My Show!
The answer to both of the above problems is simple. Want to make sure you aren’t missing out on a cool new show? Want your evening veg-out to leave you feeling partially human? I’m not here to tell you to exercise or even to watch fewer hours of TV. Let he who is without butt impressions in his couch cushions cast the first stone. I’m here to suggest that you diversify. Try limiting yourself to one episode per show per night, then find several shows you like. The differences in style will keep you engaged, the changes in content will expose you to new ideas, and you’ll be providing important support to shows (particularly web series) that might otherwise never find an audience. And look, if you can’t find at least 4 shows worth watching but also can’t bring yourself to do anything other than watch TV at night you have problems that go beyond your viewing habits.
I love the internet. I love shows and movies. I love controlling what I watch. I love my couch. I love not moving for long periods of time. But I hate binging, and I think we’d all benefit from not doing it so much anymore. Join me. Or don’t. Whatever, it’s a free country. Let’s go see what’s on TV.
By Kyle Price-Livingston