Last year my boyfriend Michael Thomas and I downloaded the TV show Friday Night Lights on Netflix and proceeded to watch all 76 episodes over the space of about a month. Maybe that doesn’t sound like so much, but considering that the watching could take place only on weekends and in the evenings after I got home from work—and allowing for a certain amount of normal sleeping, cooking, washing up, attending social events, etc.—that still means we watched an average of two and a half 45-minute episodes a day (and actually it was more like four or five on some Saturdays). The crunch always came if we finished an episode at around, say, 10:40 p.m. Were we going to go to bed sensibly or succumb and go for one last one? Unless one of us had totally fallen asleep, it was pretty much always one last one. Just thinking about it makes my eyeballs hurt.
There’s a name for what we were doing: binge watching. That may seem to be obvious terminology—the aforementioned Michael has been bingeing on TV shows and movies for years—but this particular kind is a recent, specific phenomenon, the result of DVRs and on-demand downloads through Netflix, Hulu and the like. That’s because it’s very cheap—a basic Netflix subscription is $7.99 a month—and very easy, the epitome of instant gratification. When Michael indulged his binge jones in the old days, he spent serious money—hundreds of dollars—on DVD sets—A Dance to the Music of Time, Prime Suspect, The Wire. Now what you can get for the $7.99 is pretty much only limited by the time you can spare to watch it. And apparently some people can spare a lot of time: John Jurgensen, in a July 12 piece for the Wall Street Journal, talked to a guy named Chad Rohrbacher who went through two seasons of the HBO show Breaking Bad in 22 hours in order to catch up with the beginning of the third—“pausing only for bathroom breaks, sandwiches and occasional comments of disbelief from his wife.”
Natural instinct or shallow gratification?
Views differ on the cultural impact, such as it may be, of binge-watching TV shows. Michael Thomas considers it a natural evolution—assisted by technology—of the entirely human desire for completion, for knowing what comes next; the difference between the eager crowds waiting at the dock to find out from the new monthly installment shipped from England whether Little Nell had lived and a book buyer sitting down comfortably to devour The Old Curiosity Shop in full. What’s wrong with wanting to take it all on board in one big gulp? However, writing for Slate, Jim Pagels argues that bingeing can to some extent subvert the artistic purposes of a show’s creators and diminish the viewer’s experience of it. The suspense element disappears; the time to ponder and compare and analyze vanishes; the narrative arc of each episode loses its impact. But it’s an approach that suits a lot of modern life; in the “Sunday Routine” column of the New York Times Metropolitan section on September 23, David Garza, who runs the Henry Street Settlement, a social services agency on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, says that he and his wife “don’t get to watch a lot of television, so we’re a big fan of going through a whole box set. We’ve done Nurse Jackie that way, we’ve done Weeds that way, we’ve done Mad Men that way, you name it. And we kind of devour a box set as quickly as we can and have a good time with it, and by that time, it’s lights out.”
Suspense be damned. Instant gratification is what it’s all about. Let’s binge!—TAMARA GLENNY