The Dark Side of Netflix
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The Dark Side of Netflix

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 2, 2014 | Comments ()


I knew a woman once, mother of a friend, who was almost incapable of watching movies and television. When something dramatic was about to happen on screen, she’d squeal, and then either go into the kitchen or the bathroom, shouting back to let her know when it was past this part so she could come back. Every single time when something dramatic was happening, the thing that scrunches your insides up and widens your eyes in anticipation, she’d be out the door, hands over ears.

It wasn’t just suspense either. Not just when the ingénue opened the creaky door against every dictate of common sense and the warning of the background music. No, even when it came to the simple dramatic moments: the moment of tension as the elaborate plot is realized, the emotional swelling as the delivery room pauses before the baby’s first cry, the slow burn anticipation as two lean ever so gradually in for the long awaited kiss. All those things were just out for her. That dramatic tension before events happen drove her from the room like a vegan from a sausage factory.

We all do it, though perhaps not to such a point of dysfunction. We flip channels, watch something for a while, then flip at the cliffhanger that makes us roll our eyes at the commercial break, because the characters or plot irritate us such that we don’t want to go through the discomfort of dramatic tension on their behalf. When we don’t trust the storyteller, we aren’t willing to sit through the discomfort generated by his story. Good drama or comedy discomforts us by its nature. Sometimes, it lands wrong, I couldn’t watch The Office for its first few years because at the time it hit so close to my everyday existence that there was no humor to it.

Good drama and comedy causes discomfort in order to pay off in the end. We can’t care if the sheriff survives the shootout if we don’t cringe with him as he cries out of character in the chapel the night before. When we trust storytellers, we’re willing to stomach the discomfort in order to have the relief on the other side. In a lot of ways, a good story is like beating your head against a wall, feeling so good once it’s done. Stories without that discomfort are terrible stories, whether they are dramas or comedies. They’re emotionally toothless. That’s not to say that every story has to put you through a ringer, but the great ones, and even the good ones, should feel like your psyche just went ten rounds with Mike Tyson, if only because they make you double check that your ears weren’t bitten off.

But there’s a threshold problem here. See, we might be willing to walk through fire for certain storytellers. We’d probably watch at least three episodes of our families being tortured before we gave up on a new Vince Gilligan series. But those from unknowns, or those stories we just hear from the rumors and Internet are worth watching? There’s less of a threshold before we just turn the channel instead of enduring the discomfort long enough to get to the payoff.

And here’s the dark side of Netflix, and infinite on demand entertainment. Twenty years ago, if you rented a movie, and popped that old black tape into the grinding gears of the VCR? You were going to watch that movie until the end. It’s not like you were going to bother stopping it, rewinding it, and finding another tape. It’s not much of a barrier to change, really, nothing compared to a generation before that with only three stations plus the radio. But it was just enough to make you suck it up and watch, or at the very least to not pause it while you go preheat the oven.

But with an infinite amount of entertainment available at your fingertips, there’s no barrier of change any longer. Uncomfortable part of the fifth episode dragging on? Well you can have the pilot of the next show on your list playing before you can alt-tab over to Facebook while it loads.

The consequence of this is that it our threshold has dropped, it’s easier to ditch the discomfort for something of a known quantity, or just for the entertainment equivalent of junk food. I’ve been ever so slowly working my way through Breaking Bad on Netflix. I started over the summer and manage to watch an episode every couple of weeks or so. It’s that dense of a show, it’s that much work, that no matter how good it is, it’s just too easy to go watch some Parks and Rec or Community for the third time instead.

I don’t know if this is a bad thing, or if it has even become a common enough phenomenon that it’s going to cause adjustments to the creative decisions behind television series and movies any time soon. But I do know that I’ve got a half dozen different series that I have every intent of watching, but have been stopped and not picked up again in the middle of episodes, invariably at points where the discomfort is peaking, the dramatic tension building, and there’s been something shiny in another window that pulled my attention away for weeks or months.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here and order his novel here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • I don't have Netflix, but I have lots of on demand access to shows and movies, and I find that I am more willing to take a chance on something I haven't heard much about, specifically because I can shut it off if I am not enjoying it. On the other hand, I have a strong tolerance for weird stuff, so I may be an outlier. Also, the tension is the interesting part for me. I almost always find the build up more intriguing and satisfying than the payoff, though I certainly want the latter to feel that a story is complete.

    I won't watch Breaking Bad, because I live in the heart of meth country (hell, wel ALL do, but it's pretty obvious in small rural towns who's on meth and what it's doing to them) so I'm not comfortable adding another aspect of that to my entertainment queue. I know I'm missing out on some good acting, but I'm okay with my choice. There are plenty of other shows that fill my need for gripping drama and occasional discomfort.

  • FireLizardQueen

    I find the opposite is true for me. I used to be awful at going to movies regularly or watching more than a few TV shows regularly, then came the DVR and Netflix. I've watched more movies and TV shows in the last few of years than I probably have my whole life. I like that I can be more discerning as well. Like anything else on the internet, it creates more niche interests but I think that's ok too.

  • Lee

    I occasionally rent movies from Amazon and I do turn them off midway if I'm not enjoying them.

    Breaking Bad may not be for you. I appreciated the writing, directing, and acting, but the constant stress of the characters exhausted me. I quit after season 2. Same with Sons of Anarchy after three seasons.

    If you had to pay individually for BB episodes would you stay invested? I think Netflix has facilitated your investment in the series, not hindered it.

  • kirbyjay

    I marathoned 4 seasons of BB in 4 days, sitting at my computer, that's how much it sucked me in. As for Mad Men, I got tired of the sexism of the 60's really fast and only watched 2 seasons. I'm also still mad at The Hamm for being pissy about his penis, so there's that.

  • Wednesday

    That's why I watched Breaking Bad in almost-real time. I don't think I could honestly handle a marathon of the show. I'd be too tempted to fast-forward or skip some of the slower episodes that were utterly riveting once you got invested ("Fly"? I probably would have skipped it and that would be tragic).

  • Naye

    I agree. I feel Steven on the movie thing, but I think that is only from a quality of experience standpoint, and all experience is subjective; I doubt it would ever make a difference in the creative decisions of showrunners. For every person that hates a scary movie, there is someone who can't get enough. If not for Netflix I never would have caught on to my feel good shows like Parks and Recreation or Sherlock not to mention those shows not currently in syndication.

  • Lee

    That's been my experience as well. I've found so many enjoyable shows on Netflix that I would have never been exposed to (Friday Night Lights, Lost Girl, Continuum, UK-Being Human). I work during prime time viewing hours and I don't have cable so Netflix is perfection to me. I do wish they had more Twilight Zone episodes though.

  • Nolamama

    And this is exactly why I find myself watching more Bravo cack at the end of a grueling day with 45 minutes until I need to be asleep. I don't have it in me to watch anything that takes an ounce of mental or emotional work. It's pathetic and I'm missing out but, what are you gonna do?

  • I could only watch Breaking Bad if I had a distraction or project (I finished two quilts while marathoning it last summer). It's not an easy show to get through, although season 4 finally hooked me enough to just sit and watch it.
    I have the most problems with foreign films. I really like them, but I have to actually pay attention and read subtitles, so I usually procrastinate watching them for a time when there is really nothing new to look at on the internet.

  • Yossarian

    I think the main reason I pay to see movies in the theater isn't about the big screen or fancy surround sound or because I can't wait for the DVD release. Those things are nice but the main reason I go to the movies is to be locked in a room free from distractions with a movie I can't turn off. Because if I'm at home surrounded by convenience and technology with easy access to a pause button and a light switch I'm helpless to not interrupt my own viewing experience multiple times (regardless of how good the movie is) with stupid bullshit.

    And it's too easy to put off starting a movie until after I have done various other things and then put it off until another day if it gets too late and then put it off indefinitely when it gets buried under other stuff I want to see. Rigid showtimes and brief windows of theatrical release force commitment and prioritization.

    I'd love to say that I have the self discipline to appreciate all the things that Netflix and On Demand make possible, but I don't. And I'll gladly pay movie theater prices to have that discipline imposed on me so I can fully enjoy the movies I want to see.

  • BAM

    Until the theater becomes a prison, most recently like my experience watching Catching Fire, where a family of four sat directly behind me and their two five-year-old children would not stop chattering through the entire movie. Some movies are great in the theater because of the spectacle/audience interaction, but other times I want peace and quiet so I can focus.

  • lukebc

    First show matinee. Check it out. (tell work you have a doctor's appointment)

  • BAM

    It was the first show matinee (11:35am).

  • Yossarian

    That's my secret. Even weekend matinees in my town are mostly just full of old people (well, maybe not Hunger Games). I'd pay extra to see 2D R-rated afternoon screenings with no teenagers or douchebags, and instead they give me a discount.

  • My secret is going opening night. There are usually at most ten other people in the theater. It's the only theater within a thirty mile radius. But, um, the industry has never been better, they tell me.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    I've the same problem with Breaking Bad. I also stopped Deadwood midway through the 1st season and haven't touched my DVD set yet.

  • Wōđanaz Óðinn

    Do yourself a favour and finish it. Deadwood is a rough ride, but absolutely worth it.
    'My friend' tells me lowering the volume helps in tense scenes, but I wouldn't know.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Let me get through Breaking Bad first.

  • Naye

    This exactly is why I haven't finished BB yet (and I have also successfully avoided spoilers up to this point). For every episode of BB I go and watch like five of the Mindy Project or Archer or something. I actually sighed in relief when Sons of Anarchy had a one episode break before the season finale, I was so stressed out lol

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Good job avoiding spoilers! You're really going to love the part where Jesse finally finishes building the jetpack for Saul!


  • Naye

    You tried it, but I know how to scroll down! lol. The last few months have been me with my fingers in my ears screaming "lalalalalalalalala". That and a little bit of denial have gotten me through.
    I think people try to punish themselves by continuing to read when it's clearly headed into spoiler territory.

  • wonkeythemonkey

    Since you showed admirable restraint, I'll reward you by telling you that I revealed no real spoilers in my comment and you may read it freely. Of course, if I were a really nasty spoiler troll, I would say the same thing. And you were smart enough to skip my last post, so you probably won't read this one as well.

    Well played!

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