Binge watching: when television becomes a drug
Talking Remote has mainly dealt with the construction of television shows. As an occasional fiction writer, the delicate intertwining of plot, character, and theme fascinate me. They offer numerous streams of analysis, particularly over the trajectory of a season, and I can really learn from observing the creative strategies of professional TV writers. This week though, I will be putting all that aside, and focusing on us — the viewers!
I watch my share of television, but watching every existing comedy and drama is impossible. I sample some and revisit others, so despite journalistic objectivity, I will never have a full perspective. But with enough variety, I can delve into the multitude of unique analyses that I bring to this column.
Those views, though, are dependent on many factors. Our preferred set of shows shape our disposition regarding television, but so do our activities external to it: the friends we enjoy them with, the time we invest in our fandom, life experiences that help us relate to characters, and our method of consumption.
The latter is an interesting discussion. As university students, we love “binge watching.” I’ve discussed this phenomenon briefly before: we rarely hitch onto a show in its first season, but once we’re triggered by a deluge of mainstream discussion or our friends’ recommendations, we excitedly dive in.
If we like it, well, then bid adieu to days of productivity. I’ve heard epic recounts of friends watching Game of Thrones’ entirety in two days, or 12 straight hours of Friends. Their sleep schedules warp, and I don’t see them for days, except for “WOW” texts about the show they’re bingeing. Netflix’s chief content officer claimed 50,000 subscribers watched all 13 hours of Breaking Bad’s fourth season in a single 24-hour period — the day those episodes became available.
A decade ago, such bingeing was only possible through syndication marathons or DVDs. Netflix and streaming have become integral to catch ongoing shows like The Walking Dead. This accessibility has driven bingeing to unhealthy levels for millions of tantalized viewers, leading to the central question: to binge, or not to binge and instead take it day by day?
Bingeing is partially responsible for increased viewership. Journeying through a show’s entire library in condensed time easily catches you up to the current season of popular shows. Locking yourself in your dorm, tuning up your laptop, and watching episode after episode of Community can be damaging to your academic progress, sleep, and hygiene. But there’s also no better activity in solitude — if you’re ever going to immerse yourself for half a day, it should be in the lovable presence of Troy, Abed, Annie, and team, right? Binge watching is a fun, pure experience.
The more you watch, the more you lose touch with the real world, and soon, you’ll assimilate into Greendale Community College. Depending on your escapist personality, you may re-emerge from your shell and slowly remember your school assignments, forgotten while you were on that dreamy binge. It’s like consuming a heavenly drug to drift away from your Waterloo life.
Drugs do have their downsides. Those extended periods of gluing your eyes to the screen limit your sentient reflection. It’s prudent to critically ponder what you just watched, especially for shows with depth like Mad Men. With each waking, caffeine-deprived minute, our alertness decimates, causing us to miss character motivations and key story themes. Take a disciplined break (we take study “breaks” all the time, right?), mull over the episode’s actions, and come back refreshed.
Unless it’s 24, shows imply an intermittent timeline. On How I Met Your Mother, we check in with Ted, Barney, and company on a “weekly” basis, not as one continuous string of sitcom adventures. They work in the day just like we study, and every Monday at 8 p.m., we join them for an evening drink at McLaren’s. Even watching one episode per day maintains the timeline’s integrity.
But what if, for example, Prison Break leaves you on a cliffhanger? Well, when a serial drama is airing weekly on television, die hards examine the episode and discuss the possible outcomes. That’s the typical way to calm the desperate need to find out what happens. You might not love speculation, but bypassing it for instantaneous gratification via bingeing? That’s essentially indulging in a fleeting shot of pleasure to placate your brain’s cliffhanger anxiety. It’s temporary, and it’ll just make you crave more. The episode will still be there if you rest.
Of course, some viewers don’t care for that last point. They simply want to be entertained, and addictive bingeing is perfect for charging through thrilling cliffhangers. Television is voluntary after all and consumption method is discretionary. But for debates like “what is the best show,” our opposing opinions aren’t necessarily due to watching different shows, or reacting to them differently; it might be about the different ways we watch those shows.