Today, James Wolcott provides a meditation on binge-watching (also called binge-viewing) of several TV shows in one sitting as opposed to viewing a single episode per week. This latest manifestation of pop culture is propelled by Netflix and its competitors, Hulu and Amazon Prime. If this is (fair & balanced) media madness, so be it.
The Atrophy And The Ecstasy
By James Wolcott
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It is no doubt churlish of me, but I'm not impressed by your giving yourself a verbal high five for spending the entire weekend binging on the new season of "House of Cards" (Netflix) until you lost feeling in your legs and jet-lag set in, even though you didn't go anywhere, indeed barely budged, apart from periodic visits to the bathroom like the proverbial bear in the woods. I'm not saying that binge-watching should be a source of shame (though a blush of sheepishness might be in order), but bragging about it in on Twitter or Facebook or at the next interface you have with fellow earth-mates violates the samurai code by which some of us live. It's like expecting congratulations or an amiable nod of confirmation after someone announces they just ate an entire 18-piece bucket of KFC without slipping into a complete coma; tacky. Gluttony is gluttony, and binging on a bulkload of even a quality series is kinesiologically no different from being hypnotized by porn videos into a zombie torpor, although the former may produce bendier brain waves. (Details offers a useful anatomy lesson on the physical effects of binge-watching, which I urge every American spud to consider before the next parachute drop of "Orange Is the New Black" arrives, though I recognize such counsel is futile.)
Binge-watching as a conversation topic and confessional gambit was tolerable when it was restricted to catching up on cult shows vaulted in DVD boxed sets, despite the occasional annoyance of being regaled by someone's enthusiasm for "The Wire" five years after it was cancelled or having someone urge you not to spoil "Breaking Bad" for them—"I'm only half-way through season two." But at least it was scattered before, with people catching up on shows they'd missed at varying paces. It's gotten vexingly worse with the stratospheric rise of Netflix because now the binge-orgy begins the same day for everyone—the blab fest goes off like a bomb, wiping out entire weekends on Twitter. Everyone gets to be boring simultaneously, which is what Sartre meant when he wrote, "Hell is other fan-boys," or words to that effect.
Even if I had the inclination, I lack the concentration and gung-ho submersible spirit for binge-watching. I'm too antsy—back to back episodes of a sitcom or a series I've already seen is about my limit before the pinball machine in my head starts to ping. I also think it's something of a disservice to the actors, writers, directors, and crews of shows to gorge. They put all of that thought, effort, painstaking detail work, and post-production finessing on a series over a stretch of months that to cram it down just doesn't seem right, even if everyone involved couldn't care less. There's so much to take in that taking it in nearly all at once seems something of a cheat. Dramatically, some shows are so intense (the original "The Bridge," for example), or ensemble-rich ("Downton Abbey") that I want a bit of a breather in order to decompress. I also feel as if I'd be cheating myself out of anticipation, which adds edge to one's pleasure in cliffhangers, the week-long what-next? speculation, how will Philip and Elizabeth wiggle out of this latest jam on "The Americans" with their wigs attached. I want enjoy the full ride of the narrative arc, not race through it in a hasty rush to make it through the tunnel. Life's enough of a tunnel as it is, especially this wearisome winter. Ω
[James Wolcott is a journalist, known for his critique of contemporary media. Wolcott is the cultural critic for Vanity Fair and contributes to The New Yorker. He has written one novel, The Catsitters (2001) and three non-fiction works: Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants: The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror (2004), Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York (2011), and Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs (2013). Wolcott left Frostburg State College after his sophomore year to join the staff of The Village Voice.]
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