By Landry Harlan
BU News Service
Binge watching television is bad for you. No, I’m not talking about your physical health, though plenty have made that argument. I mean it’s ruining the way you appreciate and evaluate art. It’s making you impatient, uncritical, overexposed and underwhelmed. I’m going to convince you to stop. Actually, as a repeat offender, I’m still trying myself.
I loved “Stranger Things.” Who didn’t? The 80s nostalgia, Spielbergian sci-fi and abundance of Halloween costume inspirations made it a hit last Summer on Netflix. And the best part? All eight episodes dropped simultaneously, per Netflix tradition. Just like you, it piqued my interest before stoking a two-day long binge session that would have been one-day if I had a large supply of Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy.
Like a drunk emerging from his stupor, after the credits rolled I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. I remember the major plot points, but not how the threads got there. Minor characters’ roles escaped me, and the climax in retrospect was nonsensical. What did it all even mean? Now, seven months later, I can name only two characters (Barb and Eleven) and faintly recall what the plot entailed (some government conspiracy with Christmas lights and a creature called a Demagorgon). Okay, I lied. I had to Google search for “Demagorgon”.
Imagine an alternative reality. Here, “Stranger Things” was released one episode at a time on a weekly basis on Sunday nights. We gathered with friends to hold watch parties each week and huddled around the break room with co-workers every Monday morning to break down the details. We discussed the hidden meanings of certain dialogue and theorized on what lies over the edge of cliffhangers. Best of all, no one was ahead of us spoiling the fun.
When was the last time you consumed a show like this? “Lost” is one of the oldest and the “Game of Thrones” one of the newest of these conversation-sparking serials. Both built complex narratives filled with Easter eggs, red herrings and excruciating waits between episodes. Now, imagine if they had been available all at once. Their quality wouldn’t diminish, but your viewing experience absolutely would. The conversations never happen, episodes bleed together and at the end you’re already off to the next binge, missing the pay- off you hardly worked for.
And even if those conversations do happen, they can’t last. We’ve all had those moments at a party or over dinner where someone brings up their new favorite obsession. In the new binge culture, it tends to go a little like this:
“Have you all seen “The Crown” yet? I watched it all over the weekend with my cat.”
“Same! It was soooo good. I love that part where the Queen did that thing.”
“What episode was that in? My favorite was when the Queen did that other thing.”
“I must have been missed that. I had to do homework while I watched. Still, I can’t wait for the next season! Oh, and have you started “Black Mirror’s” new season yet?”
“Sssshhhhh! No spoilers!”
There’s just too much to consume in a season for a conversation to involve anything more than a few memorable moments and impressions of the show as a whole. Going over the details of an episode and sharing fan theories is no longer a part. Why bother? Who can remember the details, and who is going to wait with a theory when the faster they watch, the faster they can get an answer?
Art doesn’t just require our attention. It demands evaluation and interpretation. When no time is given to this step, the work is simply a blur, like catching the glimpse of someone in a passing train. TV is the main culprit, but you can just as easily binge on movies, books, exhibitions, etc. A museum could put photos of all the paintings online for you to scroll down like it’s your Instagram feed. A few might slow your finger for a moment, but how many would you click on to read the accompanying placard detailing what the artist is trying to say?
Consider if the “Harry Potter” book series or “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy came as one boxed set with no gap between each installment. Harry and friends would age and Frodo would reach Mordor in seven and three blinks of an eye, respectively. The richness of their respective journeys would get lost in the rush to the finish, like ignoring the trees and the rivers and the wildlife just to finish a hike. This bypasses the enormous amount of thought and work put into developing the characters and story over the extended period of time the mediums offer. The craft becomes secondary in the viewer’s hasty search for answers, drama be damned. Character deaths are mere road bumps. Reunions and betrayals are unsatisfying and unsurprising.
I love commercials. Actually, I should say I love commercial breaks. It provides a chance to take a much-needed breather during a lull in the action. Though, with the invention of the DVR and binge watching, commercials are mostly a thing of the past. This seems like a great thing for humanity. Hooray not being marketed to 24/7! But that also means the only breaks are between episodes, and on Netflix, that lasts 10 seconds. That’s hardly time to consider alternative paths your life can take.
It can be argued that a viewer shouldn’t take leave of a narrative, but TV is different. Each episode is its own smaller narrative that connects to a larger one. Without a break, you are on a roller coaster full of cliffhanger/resolution loops where you become so disoriented that you only see the big picture. You need a break after all that spinning and twisting. Good luck walking in a straight line after just 10 seconds.
Pro-bingers also say that the above is true of premium hour-long dramas, where greater focus is required, but not of breezy half-hour comedies. “Friends” and “Gilmore Girls” marathons are, after all, a staple of Generation Y. There’s also usually significantly more episodes produced so they are more conducive to watching in blocks. Still, when not done in moderation, binging comedies is just as damaging.
Comedies are not as substantial at first glance as the premium cable dramas. Yet, shows like “Cheers” and “Parks and Recreation” left as much a mark on the national consciousness as “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.” We shouldn’t minimize their influence just because the subject matter isn’t as “serious.”
The characters can become family over time and their life transitions (e.g., weddings, characters leaving the show, etc.) can open up the tear ducts the same way any drama could. It’s the story that moves you, separated from genre. If a comedy pulls you in, enjoy and linger with the experience. Spread the seasons out over a month or two. Netflix (and its streaming relatives) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
It’s time to practice what I preach. From now on, no binging! No matter the show, I will watch it in one-week increments, just like those dark days before the existence of online streaming services. No more late night into early morning binge sessions. No more rushing to get answers. No more missing details and characters just to keep up with friends. The rush just isn’t worth it. I’d rather savor every moment. Join me, won’t you? Binging is lonely. Let’s have a conversation.