Why I Stopped Binge-Watching TV
I started watching Deadwood the other day. Yes, it’s 10 years old, but I never got around to seeing it when it originally aired from 2004-2006. That was right after I graduated from college, and I didn’t have a cable plan with HBO. The DVD sets, when they were released, were also prohibitively expensive for a recent grad, even used, and so it became one of those shows I wanted to see but just never did. Now, though, using a relative’s HBO Go account (a practice not totally outlawed by HBO CEO Richard Plepler), I’m able to see the show. And in this era of binge-watching and breathless recaps and unleashed GIFfery, I’m trying something different: I’m going slow. I’ve watched three episodes in about 12 days.
And it’s been wonderful.
I’ve binged on a lot of TV. Let’s also be clear what I mean by binge-watching, too: I’m talking about the kind of mini-marathons where you can watch three or five or seven episodes in a row, or where you might polish off a network-standard 22-episode season over a long weekend. The kind of consumption where you aren’t so much watching TV as mainlining it, riding diminishing highs as your eyes dry out and go numb from hours spent in one narrative world, your head constantly rattling with the theme song, your sweaty thumbs moving to click or tap for the next episode without your having to think about it. That’s bingeing, and I’ve done my share of it. I burned through the first season of Friday Night Lights on DVD. When I caught up with Breaking Bad’s first three seasons via iTunes, I moved through those 33 episodes in a couple of weeks. All I remember about the last half of the first season of The Wire is that I barely moved from my bed while it unspooled. My journey through the first season of Battlestar Galactica could have come from Portlandia. You get the idea.
I loved it, too. But I was never far from awareness of the bloat that comes with bingeing. When it’s something poppy — like Friday Night Lights — you wind up feeling a little blurry on certain details and the precise order of causes and effects. What’s supposed to be three (or five, or seven) installments in a story, even a highly serialized one, becomes instead one long run. When you’re watching something rich, though, you can feel yourself getting stuffed well before you stop eating. I went way too quickly through that first season of The Wire. It’s a deliberately paced series that’s heavy on character and built on nuance. It makes itself known in small beats, unspoken conflicts, and the tension between competing desires. All the pieces matter, and I couldn’t wait to slam them onto the table and glue them together.
Digital streaming — and DVDs before that — has created a staggering amount of access to some fantastic TV series, but glorying over the ease of use, it’s easy to forget that these shows weren’t meant to be watched in marathons. Not at all. Not even a little bit. Writers and directors and showrunners would just as soon you didn’t have to deal with commercial breaks (without them, they could drop those little hinting bits of dialogue that remind you of where you left off a couple minutes earlier and just get back to the story), and those random weeks-long gaps between new episodes of network series aren’t doing viewers any favors, either. But there’s an individual rhythm to episodes, especially when you’re dealing with those dense, layered dramas that have been exploded in the past 15 years. They’re set up with the knowledge that viewers will taken seven days or more between episodes. There’s so much to absorb, and pushing to watch more and more at once can make that harder to do.
Bingeing is popular for a couple of reasons. It feels like a genuine achievement, in a way: you climbed a mountain, only that mountain was made of anti-heroes. You chewed through a modern classic in a fraction of the time that everyone else did, since those saps had to watch it one week at a time. This is why things like GetGlue — now TV Tag — were formed; to quantify media consumption as competition. Bingeing is also a handy way to recast a sedentary activity (holding very still for six-plus hours) as something emotionally worthwhile (crying when your favorite character dies). Bingeing doesn’t mean sitting in front of the TV aimlessly; it means having a purpose, and dedication.
So I’ve decided to stop, or at any rate, I’ve decided to try to stop. This is a little tough since I gave up cable a few months back, and Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go are all designed to facilitate rapid-fire streaming of one episode after another of dozens of series. No waiting. But I think it’s going to be worth it. As I’ve worked my tentative way through these first hours of Deadwood, I’ve felt myself eager to watch another episode as soon as the credits roll, but I tell myself to hold back. I want to let the show work on me at a different speed, and I want to take time to enjoy the journey. There is no prize for finishing a series quickly, and I’m not in any kind of contest with others. I don’t get anything for rushing. I’m already seeing benefits, too. Stories are clearer, and giving the narrative time to settle between episodes makes the fictional world more stable and welcoming. I’m less focused on getting to the next episode and more focused on absorbing this one.
Most of all, I want to keep in mind what we always seem to overlook when we binge: once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. There won’t be any more. Deadwood, for example, is years in the grave and only has 36 episodes across its three seasons. Even at the outside, a series will only run for a few years. And while in the U.S., that might make for anywhere from a few dozen episodes to almost a hundred, if we’re talking British series, the runs are vastly shorter. The original version of The Office is 12 episodes and a pair of specials; Spaced is 14 episodes; Luther is currently at 14; you get the idea. What good does it do me to discover a new series, find out I like it, and then force myself to gorge on it? Why rush to spend what we can’t get back?