Thursday, April 23, 2015

Binge Twinge

Binge-watching has been getting some press lately, and no wonder. It is the new way of viewing TV series and movie series. Binge-watching is defined as watching more than two episodes of the same show or more than two movies of the same series at one sitting. In part we do it simply because it is possible. In the old days the opportunity was limited to special events such as Twilight Zone broadcast marathons on New Year’s Day. Even after the advent of tapes and DVDs, collections were pricey while rentals were inconvenient, so few of us bothered with more than the occasional binge – typically something like the first three Star Wars movies. All that changed with inexpensive video-on-demand, a plethora of storage methods, and an abundance of series that are good, addicting, or both. Netflix deliberately releases entire seasons (e.g. House of Cards) at once, both feeding and exploiting our tendency to binge.

Binging has changed the nature of TV scripts. Traditionally there was tension between producers and writers. Producers preferred each episode to be completely self-contained so that a new viewer wouldn’t be confused (and dissuaded) by finding himself in the middle of a storyline about which he knows nothing. Writers, by contrast, preferred ongoing storylines because they are easier to write and because they offer a better opportunity to develop complex characters, plots, and themes. Some shows, especially sitcoms, still are largely self-contained, but increasingly the writers are having their way. Story arcs continue through several episodes, or even through an entire series. It is easy enough for a new viewer to start at the beginning of a series at any time, so complex ongoing plots are now an asset. They make a viewer wonder what comes next.

Why do we binge-watch? Probably for the same reason we binge on anything else. It is a temporary distraction from the harshness of the real world. As distractions go, this one is relatively benign. It less harmful than binging on vodka, donuts, or OxyContin. True, it is not without drawbacks. Binge-watches cost time, but so long as we schedule them so that we don’t forgo the important things in life in favor of the fantasy on screen, we’re probably good.

According to a TiVo survey, the five most binge-watched series are Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Downton Abbey. One needs to take this with a grain of salt. People notoriously posture on surveys, pretending to drink less (liquor taxes collect more than double what they ought if people were telling the truth) and to favor higher culture than they do. One fairly might suspect that they are more likely to admit to a binge of Downton Abbey than to Arrested Development, Family Guy, or one of the shows with vampires. Nonetheless, those five do have dedicated followings.

What were my own binges in the past year? While there were occasions when I saw more than two movies at one sitting (usually on a sleepless night) the selections weren’t thematic for more than two, so on a technicality they missed the definition of a binge. TV shows were another matter. I met the definition with them. My choices weren’t especially highbrow, except possibly I, Claudius, if that counts. In the past year they have included Battlestar Galactica, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Star Trek (original series), Roswell, Xena, The Addams Family (TV series), Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (yes really), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Strangely enough, popular as this series was, Buffy was new to me. I was aware of the show, of course, when it first aired 1997-2003 and had liked (modestly) the 1992 movie that inspired it, but those particular six years were tumultuous for me; new TV shows were the least of what was on my radar. Mary Hartman Mary Hartman, tracking as it does the title character’s course to a nervous breakdown (on the air on a talk show), was the most addictive of the bunch, yet, at the same time, the least appealing on an episode by episode basis since not a lot happens in any one.

Most of us  probably feel a twinge of guilt about all those hours spent this way, but we all need a few guilty pleasures. Once again, it depends on the alternative; if the alternative is Jim Beam, Buffy is a better bet.

What It's Like To Binge

Marilyn Manson- Third Day of a Seven Day Binge


  1. I've been binging on Louis CK lately, if I can catch more than one episode on the FX Channel. Also I'll watch something like Impractical Jokes (TruTV), sort of a Candid Camera for pranks. It's silly, but makes me laugh, which not many sitcoms do, so I go with the flow. The same goes for the Carbonaro Effect, which is sort of another Candid Camera type show, but includes magic tricks to befuddle the public it's played on. Sometimes it might something like Forensic Files, or Flea Market Flip, or something else, but yeah, it all depends on mood.

    I'm currently getting caught up with Game of Thrones as well. House of Cards I haven't seen. Is it any good?

    1. I haven't watched either Game of Thrones or House of Cards though critics seem to like them both. Good to know there is something in the wings on which to binge after I use up my current list.

  2. Yeah binge watching used to be the only way to watch those anime series I used to review. Because you'd get 4 episodes per disc and just watch them all in a single go. :)

    These days we find ourselves binge watching a lot. I just finished off seasons six and seven of Star Trek: The Next Generation and started in on "Deep Space 9". I never got into the series while they were on the air, but I'm enjoying them now.

    But the real surprise was the marathon watching we did of the HBO series "The Wire". Gritty crime drama filmed in Baltimore. Not the type of thing I would normally watch, but the writing, the acting and the stories were really really good and involving. Really a great show, once you get past the first couple episodes and allow yourself to get pulled in.

    Buffy is one of my favorites from the 90s. That and the X-files.

    1. X Files was fun. We'll have to see how the the new series does starting next year. Buffy should have been on my view list, and would have been had my world not been so topsy-turvy at the time, if only because Sarah Michelle Gellar is a heartbreaker -- even without stabbing you with with a wooden stake. I loved her performance in Cruel Intentions, which, come to think of it, I'll have to revisit sometime.