Originally published in the March/April issue of This Magazine.
Late last year, Netflix issued a press release that proudly declared binge watching as the new normal when it comes to consuming TV. It was a pretty standard release for a tech company, the subtext being “people love the way we’re blowing up an industry.” And they aren’t wrong. When Oxford picked their word of the year for 2013, “Binge Watch” was runner up (to “Selfie”). It makes sense; who among us hasn’t spent an entire weekend watching Downton Abbey?
It’s an entirely different context for bingeing. One Netflix executive said he doesn’t like the word “binge,” he prefers “marathon.” Well, yeah.
If you’re a binge drinker, your family is likely worried about you. If you binge on ice cream, you probably feel a bit (or a lot) guilty afterward. We implicitly understand that bingeing isn’t good. It’s a compulsion toward excess that could wreck your health or mental well being.
Binge on gummy bears or bourbon or Marlboros and people will judge you. Every few years we get into a panic about kids bingeing on Space Invaders or Tetris or World of Warcraft or Call Of Duty. Even if you spent a long weekend reading Ulysses while listening to Unknown Pleasures on repeat, you’ll get some strange looks.
Bingeing is bad. Unless what you’re bingeing on happens to be 94 episodes of Doctor Who. Then you’re just keeping up. You’re participating in the pop culture discourse. You’re doing what people do. If you haven’t devoted a full weekend to the final season of Breaking Bad, you’re a pariah.
When Portlandia (seasons one and two currently streaming on Netflix) offered up a sardonic look at a couple that lost their friends, jobs and sanity bingeing on episodes of Battlestar Galactica, I laughed despite a few pangs of familiarity. It was funny because it was at least a little (or a lot) true.
The truth is, the behaviour—modified thanks to DVDs and iTunes and Netflix and the very concept of on-demand viewing—isn’t really new. Canadians have been watching more than 30 hours of TV each week for awhile. The difference now is choice. Real choice. We thought we had choice with limitless channels showing something for everyone, but we were drowning in a sea of banal sitcoms where overweight men marry beautiful women, melodramatic soap operas about doctors or cops or lawyers or some combination thereof and multiple shows about competitive cake decorating. That’s not choice, that’s Huxley’s worst nightmare come true.
But people bingeing on TV episodes today aren’t really watching the “bad” shows. By all accounts we are currently in a Golden Age of television. When we binge, it’s on unquestionably great shows like The Wire or debatably good shows like House Of Cards or not-terrible guilty pleasures like The Good Wife. We are bingeing on the highest quality television programming in human history, and we’re doing it on our own terms: as much as possible as quickly as possible.
That being said, if I kill a bottle of scotch in a single sitting, applauding the quality of the liquor kind of misses the point. I’m not sure you’d find a doctor or psychologist or sane person anywhere that thinks doing a single thing for 16 consecutive hours is good for you. TV—even the best TV—is still TV. It’s the thing we do when we aren’t reading a book or playing outside or learning string theory. It’s the thing we stick our kids in front of to get them out of our hair. It’s the same passive, sedating entertainment experience it always has been. Not that that stopped me from watching all seven seasons of The West Wing last summer.
TV is a thing in our lives. We love TV. Six decades on, it is as much a part of our culture as ever. And I think that’s okay. But television shows are designed to keep you watching. Somewhere in the middle of all that complex human brain chemistry is a hormone that makes ignoring a good cliffhanger impossible. We are people and people need closure, which is a fantastic tactic when trying to convince you to tune in next week, but it gets a little dicey when Netflix hits play on the next episode automatically.
Moderation in all things is important. It keeps you rounded and connected and grounded and interesting and, frankly, not crazy. When in doubt, here’s a simple rule to remember: Mad Men is fantastic. All the Mad Men is a questionable life decision.