It must have been 11 at night. The last episode of season four of Breaking Bad had just finished. We were watching it on DVD because cable is impossible and satellite sketchy at our farm in the boonies. We looked at each other as the credits rolled. And then we (Tim, my life partner) and I were out the door. It’s a 20-minute drive to Walmart, but they might have season five in stock. We had to know what happens next.
We have Netflix now, so binge watching is easier. We’ve binged on Bloodline, Stranger Things, Wild, Wild Country and Dead to Me, among others.
Binge-watching is part of American culture now. First it’s the shows – the casual references to the Upside Down, the widespread memes based on Mad Men, the water cooler talks about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Tony and Carmela Soprano’s marriage.
And then it’s the act of binge-watching. No commercial breaks, no “tune in next time” – just ceaseless episodes paused on demand. You can literally watch a multiple season show all weekend and do very little else if you so choose.
To me, it’s a little bit like reading a novel. I never read a chapter and put the book aside for the next day. I’m always going to read the next chapter. And probably the one after that. And so on until I’m nodding off and hitting myself in the face with the book. Now that I have access to whole seasons of televised shows – on the TV even, not just on DVD! – I’m unlikely to watch a single episode of anything.
I Googled “binge-watching and mental health” before I started writing this. There are a bunch of articles about how bad it is for us. When we become emotionally involved with an extended series, our brains produce dopamine during viewing, creating a kind of natural high. The feelings of letdown when the show is over can have a physical cause as well as an emotional one. Also, becoming thoroughly fixated on a show can cause us to avoid real life responsibilities. (I saw this on a sketch in season 2 of Portlandia, which I may or may not have been binge watching at the time.) And so on.
But there are some benefits. Binge-watching can be like reading a novel but as a shared, effortless experience. We can become as emotionally involved with a televised story as with one we read. And if “everyone” is watching the same thing, it gives us something to talk about with that co-worker down the hall that we never talk to otherwise.
I’m not big into TV. Weeks will go by without me turning the thing on. I’ll get sucked into social media far more easily than a television show, and like many Ghost Parachute readers, I’ve often got my nose stuck in a book. I don’t often feel let-down when a show I’m binging ends because I’m usually ready to be not-watching TV by then. Sometimes I’ll feel I’ve wasted my time, if the show’s conclusion is contrived, and that’s disappointing.
But binge-watching has its place, I think. Sometimes it’s nice to forget about the chaos in my life and swap it out for chaos in someone else’s. If it’s a comedy, I’ll laugh. If it’s suspense, I’ll ponder the next step, reconsider the clues. But it’s not my life, and sometimes that’s a relief. It’s that much better when I can turn to the person sitting next to me and commiserate or celebrate or scoff. And it provides a point of connection with casual acquaintances if we recognize an off-hand reference to a character or a situation or a setting.
I’m not ready to trade in Hamlet for Sons of Anarchy as a regular thing. (Wink, wink.) But I am about ready to see if Russian Doll is as good as I’ve heard. Hey, no spoilers.