Getting Lost in a Good Story: Confessions of a Television Binge-Watcher

Hypothetical Situation: There’s this television series I’ve been meaning to watch for a while, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Maybe I started the first season but fell away from it for some reason. Maybe I wasn’t sure the show was going to make it and held off watching it until it got renewed. (No, I still haven’t forgiven AMC for cancelling their spy show Rubicon on a cliffhanger back in 2010.) There could be other reasons I fell behind, like having to fulfill some adult obligation like working a job or buying groceries. Also, there are only so many hours in each day, at least as far as I know, and I’m assuming none of us are Time Lords.

This show, though. I want to watch this show.

Now, let’s up the ante. Netflix releases a new series, one I’ve been hearing about for weeks or months, and it looks good. No, it looks amazing. The reviews are stellar, and the promos are blowing me away. It has that woman, too, the one I liked from that other show. And there’s more. Suddenly, a free weekend falls in my lap. Being a sensible guy with a life and responsibilities, I’ll watch my show, but not until I’ve planned my viewing schedule. An episode every other day, or something like that. Right?

Well, maybe.

These days, when streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu release original series, they drop all the episodes online at once. And we’re talking top-notch television here. In fact, this is just plain good storytelling, with all the quality writing, direction, acting, and production to back it up. This isn’t junk. Subjective value judgments aside, I’m confident that there’s a real difference between watching Netflix’s Stranger Things and vegging out over Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

But wait, say the sensible voices among us. Binge-watching encourages viewers to crave instant gratification, turning them into adult-sized infants with smart televisions and comfy couches. Rather than living the lives they were meant to, these enormous baby-people remain indoors, eat microwaved food, and inhabit unrealistic worlds, getting little exercise apart from the vigorous thumbing of their remote controls every forty-five minutes or so. Not only that, this kind of bad behavior perpetuates even worse tendencies, causing our brains to rewire, making us want to watch even more television. Bottom line, it’s a slippery slope to anti-social lethargy.

The point is binge-watching has a bad reputation, but if you ask me, it’s mostly undeserved. Sure, there’s the possibility that a three-day marathon viewing of the entire run of Orange is the New Black or Breaking Bad or the first season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones may render the already undisciplined person inert on the furniture like a listless pile of goo. For those of us who have some amount of structure in our lives, though, where’s the harm in setting life aside for a bit to enjoy a good story? Okay, a good long story. But when it comes down to it, how is binge-watching a television series significantly different from, say, getting lost in a hefty book?

Consider this: When I was fourteen, I devoted upward of ten hours of my life to reading Stephen King’s novel The Stand, and I have yet to regret that decision. Just four years ago, I spent a week between semesters consuming nothing other than King’s Dark Tower series, and this is a thing I tell people with a swell of pride. When I laid hands on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I finished it in one night. (Yes, I guess you could say I had problems letting the book go, but I’d never stoop so low as to use that joke.)

After each of these marathon readings, I felt as if my heart had been wrenched from my chest, stomped on, and placed back in sideways. I was drained and wrecked, a mere husk of my former self. Isn’t that the point of a good story, though? When we read a good novel, one that drags us in heart and soul, do we prudently stop at the end of each chapter, telling ourselves that the smart thing to do is wait until tomorrow, perhaps even the weekend, to continue reading? Maybe so, but you know we keep reading anyway. Who’s to say that spending ten hours over a few days to watch a damn good show is any different?

Sure, there are reputable studies out there suggesting that persistent, prolonged television viewing can lead to health problems, not to mention joblessness, but that’s not the behavior I’m defending here. I’m not threatening months of sofa-bound vegetating to watch all fifty seasons of Survivor, or however many they’re up to now, and I’m not planning to spend an entire vacation watching mindless dreck like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or The New Househusbands of Old Chicago. In fact, I’m not even suggesting binge-watching television as a pastime. I’m just saying it’s not something you should be ashamed of doing every now and then.

Think about the followers of serialized Victorian novels by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Is it possible that, given the chance, those readers might have missed out on some sleep in order to devour the next illicitly procured chapter or two of The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Woman in White?

You bet your black frock coat they would’ve.