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