The Insatiability of Indulging: Binging in a New Age
In a society where we are constantly in a process of understanding the plethora of entertainment and information out there, the purpose of art and what it takes to satisfy is becoming almost impossible. With the growth of streaming services like Netflix, audio-book stores like Audible, and other devices like the Amazon Kindle, everyone is endlessly looking for something new to become obsessed with. On the other hand, there is never a point in time where we are not being persuaded or otherwise directed to starting to engage with another text, whether it be from the suggestions of friends or advertisements becoming part of our every-day subconscious. While the normal consumer may not be aware, they are being provided with a service; a service of obsession, especially with services like Netflix, which release an entire season at once, essentially requiring a casual watcher to sit down for at least 10 hours.
However, in addition to a text’s format of distribution, entertainment has become more than a way to relax and forget about life for a while, but something which we actively seek. While this may be understood as a natural search for more and more enjoyment, similar to the release of dopamine during enjoyable activities, it is more like an addiction to drugs (e.g. alcohol, caffeine, sugar), in that the more we seek to enjoy texts, the less we will be satisfied both during and after the engagement with said text. Therefore, in order to understand why this is happening, one needs to look at both the services providing these texts, but also how the every-day consumer receives them. Is it an inevitable progression which art needs to take to remain current? Or is it possible to ameliorate the situation so that people can enjoy art without worrying about what they are going to become obsessed with next?
Whether it is a conscious goal (such as one watching a comedy movie to laugh and be distracted from the hardships of one’s life) or a subconscious one (one watching a movie about racism because they have been the victim of racism), one always takes on the time and effort of engaging with a text, with something that they want to get out of it. The initial thought is, first and foremost, one will engage with a text because of an expectation that they will enjoy it (mostly informed because of other texts, otherwise known as a paratext, e.g. because you enjoyed another film by the same director or because one of your favourite reviewers recommended it). However, while we are aware that we are going to take some enjoyment out of a text, we also choose to engage with it because we are constantly looking to be satisfied. Like the use of the aforementioned drugs, while we feel satisfied during the primary stages, we soon grow to be dependent on what the viewer sees as enjoyment at first, but now only see it as a necessary fulfilment of a space which they can not define as something tangible.
There is always a point in our engagement with a text, where the viewer/reader stops subconsciously enjoying a text and becomes consciously obsessed with constantly engaging with this text and finally, consumed with the desire to finish their engagement with the text as soon as possible. Therefore, the engagement with the text changes from a casual and passive one to an active and intentional one, and then to an ambivalent one, where the mind is comprehending the least amount of information as possible. This could manifest itself with “binging” (i.e. watching two or more episodes or even complete seasons or reading a whole book in a single sitting), prolonged times discussing the text on sites like Reddit, as well as absorbing as many paratexts as possible. This point, which is not defined by time, but rather by the more time is spent engaging with a text could be referred to as the ‘enjoyment threshold’. While prolonged and condensed engagement with a text is not, in and of itself, harmful, it can affect both how a text is understood and how one feels when one is participating in it.
The Dangerous Nature of Enjoyment
In an episode of the animated television show South Park (1997-), Satan explains the potentially harmful nature of pleasure to Stan:
Satan: So, you got dopamine, right? That’s the chemical that gets released in your brain whenever you do something pleasurable, like eating, sex, and that’s just nature, right? […] But because humans have progressed and now have access to all the shit they want whenever they want it, it’s easy for them to overdo and have dopamine problems […]
Stan: So there’s nothing spiritually wrong with me? […] So what does that mean? I can get addicted to everything so I can’t enjoy anything?
Satan: Yeah, that’s pretty much what it means.
Enjoyment, in the sense of experiencing pleasure from doing something, is perhaps, the perfect representation of the idiom ‘having too much of a good thing’. However, enjoyment can also be defined by the profit (not necessarily in a financial sense) that one receives from doing something. Therefore, it is difficult to see enjoyment as intrinsically good (good in and of itself) without taking into account what caused it. While one used to be able to pinpoint specific artistic techniques in film, television or literature, in recent times, art has been reduced to using certain techniques to elicit emotion, all which eventually leads to the viewer enjoying experiencing that emotion. For instance, television shows, e.g. Game of Thrones (2011-), Breaking Bad (2008-2013), often use techniques of sudden and unexpected events to elicit surprise and/or shock from its audience. Essentially, what the viewers of new art want out of a text is the aforementioned “meme-ability”, namely the ability for it to be consumed in a condensed amount of time and then, passed on to their friends. However, while it is easy to indulge in engaging with a text, it is less easy to prove that the resulting enjoyment from indulging in obsession and addiction is intrinsically good.
Is Obsession a Natural Part of Life?
The very nature of pleasure means that it is natural to indulge in excess and thus, obsess about experiencing it. Therefore, it seems only logical to elaborate as such: enjoyment is something you experience when taking pleasure in something, pleasure is something which is, by its very definition, good. Therefore, everyone should try and experience the most pleasure as they can. While the arguments can be assumed as true, they do not logically lead to the conclusion. To illustrate, by using the Harry Potter series of novels by J.K Rowling, say you were recommended to read the books by a friend. You were initially reluctant, because you thought they were more tailored for teenagers, but enjoyed some of the film adaptations that you had seen. Regardless, you start to read them, and are pleasantly surprised at the detail and thought that has gone into the universe and the characters. You finish the first book within a day, unconcerned that you did so in one sitting. The next day, you read the second and third book in two whole sessions. You are enjoying yourself immensely, but begin to realise that you are reading too fast and barely interpreting what you are reading and just receiving the bare bones of the plot. However, you can not slow down and know that all you want is for it to be over, so that you can watch the movies and read all of the fan theories. It is this initial stages of adoration and surprise with a text which we are constantly seeking, i.e. the feeling of enjoyment, rather than any specific and explicable feature of the text.
Think of your experience of texts as a empty garden, full of potential beauty and prosperity. You are most likely introduced to texts which only aim to hold your attention for short periods of time, e.g. short picture books or shows like Sesame Street (1969-). Then, you are inevitably passed on to episodic texts which do not demand intense narrative knowledge (e.g. The Simpsons (1989-) or the Series of Unfortunate Events novels). Texts which involve the immersion in a universe, such as the Star Wars films and its many associated texts or episodic texts which are focused on emotional attachment and some narrative interconnections like Friends (1994-2004) or Doctor Who (2005-) will come next. However, these are all only texts which affect us superficially in that we can engage in them without a physical urge to continue. It is at this point where you are introduced to a text which introduces you to the narrative connections, emotional influence and a potential for philosophical or social insight and commentary. Exemplified by television shows like Lost (2005-2010) or Six Feet Under (2001-2005), the Middle-Earth books, these can be the most detrimental. You begin to feel like you have to continue these at an ever-increasing rate, until you do not have the room, nor the desire, to plant any more. Essentially, your mind is exhausted by itself.
All in all, while enjoyment and indulging are innately of value, obsession, infatuation or excessive pleasure, by their very nature, negate the pleasure you thought you were experiencing in the first place. In order to simplify this, let pleasure, enjoyment or satisfaction and similar terms all represent any feeling, whether it be physical, emotional, mental or otherwise, which you perceive as good. Therefore, it is a natural physical and mental reaction to seek more of these so-called ‘good feelings’, whether they be physically gratifying (e.g. eating enough so that the pain of hunger subsides) or mentally and emotionally fulfilling (e.g. a love for someone being reciprocated). However, while these reactions can be explained by logic and nature, it is the reactions which are often unequal to their causes which have been unnatural. The progress of mankind has allowed it to understand enjoyment and the ways in which to get it in the easiest way possible, with no end to choice or amount. This has inevitably led to the creation of fast-food outlets which would not restrict you from eating to the point where you could not physically eat any more. Similarly, the growth in accessibility to sex via the internet or the simulation of love mean that people are destroying their lives, in both a financial and emotional sense. While the self-abuse inflicted by obsession to the engagement with art is not as harmful as these examples, it represents a way in which enjoyment is a two-edged sword. Not only does the everyday consumer experience the desire to consume to a point beyond reason, but such a decision is built in to the ways in which you can view and engage with any text.
The Service Cycle of Enjoyment and Obsession
It is of no doubt, among a world where you have to sit through 30 minutes of advertising before a film at the cinemas and constantly told about new movies over the news, that art has become a service of providing a product to the widest amount of people in the smallest amount of time. However, not only are those that distribute and create art (e.g. Netflix, HBO, Warner Bros.) selling a product, but are also selling a distinct emotional response. Regardless of what this emotional response is, the intention is to direct the consumer into a cycle of obsession, rapid exhaustion of this enjoyment, the necessary conclusion of the engagement of a text and, as soon as possible, directing you to the next text.
A necessary theory to understand is that of the ‘mere exposure’ effect (changingminds.org), a theory which posits that one will always choose something which one has seen before or something with which one has a familiarity. For example, say that you have a desire to see a movie, and looking at those showing, you choose to go see Dumb and Dumber To (2014), simply because you have seen the first movie and have an idea of what to expect. With the growth of forum sites such as Reddit to include not only those with comprehensive knowledge to say what they think of a certain film or television show, it means that everyone is scrutinising everything which is coming out. On account of the overwhelming amount of places to watch and receive entertainment, it is hard to differentiate between texts, and usually, it is easier to just choose something which is familiar. Therefore, those who produce the texts need to create this obsession within the viewer, essentially forcing you to be affected by ‘mere exposure’ and to keep it going for as long as possible.
However, there will always be a point where the viewer hits the “enjoyment threshold”, a point where the intended effect, i.e. to enjoy the text, is noticed as blatant. If it is continually repeated, eventually the natural response will be to hate what you are supposed to enjoy. For example, think back to when popular culture was over-run with the Twilight saga. Both the book and film series support this idea of ‘mere exposure effect’, and, eventually, even those that were infatuated with it will begin to see, after repeating viewings or readings, will tire of its silliness and melodrama. However, when the viewer gets to this point in a text, the creators or the producers of a text must either reinvigorate the viewer’s interest, either by forcing a drastic plot change (e.g. ‘killing off’ a pivotal or well-loved character) or re-defining the text entirely. While it is necessary to see texts as made to be similar to other texts, the entertainment cycle also aims to create the image that what they are creating is the most original product on the market. One needs to only look at the slogan for HBO (“It’s HBO. So Original.”) to see that it is not the text as a distinct object which will differentiate itself from the rest, but the fact that it is created by HBO or Netflix. Therefore, the obsession with watching all creations of a certain premium cable channel is not only something originating and explained by psychological and physiological phenomena, but also an integral part of the entertainment industry and the cycle of obsession and over-enjoyment which can be detrimental to how one interprets a text.
The Effects of Obsession and Binging on the Interpretation of Art
Not only does allowing oneself to become obsessed affect one’s psychological response to other texts, it negates the very purpose of the text in the first place. Obsession is changing how society absorbs culture. Nothing is restricted from the public and they can watch anything at the click of a button. Because of this infinite access to anything and everything, it is a natural response to want to have it all now. However, this reduces art forms to nothing more than a commodity or just information and nothing else. In essence, the human brain is being simplified to nothing more than a ‘Turing machine’, i.e. by all appearances acting with the same responses as a human brain would, but only taking in information and responding according to what the information tells it to. Televisual, literary and filmic texts are created to be viewed and interpreted over a certain length of time and to “binge” on these texts makes their interpretation simply a passive absorption of plot, while ignoring the power of the visual, aural and lingual.
Pieces of long-form art are separated so as to allow for several technical and psychological processes to take place. Literature often consists of chapters or at least places where it is obvious that the author is recommending that one stops. Television shows are defined by the fact that they have episodes (broadcasted weekly) and seasons (broadcasted every year), with seasons commonly lasting 10-30 episodes. Films used to be divided in half by an intermission. A film franchise (e.g. the Harry Potter series, the Hunger Games series) is usually divided by a year between each film’s release. Therefore, every text is intended to be viewed or interpreted over a long period of time. However, with the growth in popularity of streaming services like Netflix, the availability of thousands of box sets of films and television shows and the Amazon Kindle, there is nothing to stop the new fan of a text to “enjoy” to their heart’s content. This kind of “enjoyment” represents a neglect of the medium of the text itself. While it is easier to remember exact details of plot, as well as develop an intimate knowledge of the characters, if one watches an entire series of television over a couple of days, the exact details often blur into each other, so that the viewer’s grasp on chronology and the motivations of each character becomes vague and confused. In addition, the importance and weight of storytelling devices such as ‘cliffhangers’ are barely recognisable when devouring a text in one sitting. All of the magic of not knowing what is going on or what is going to happen is lost.
For instance, take the often divisive television show Lost (2004-10). Regardless of whether one thinks that watching and theorising about the plethora of the show’s mysteries is worth it, it has many elements which makes it easily “bingeable”. However, to watch it in a couple of months means that all of the speculation is gone, as you can just watch the next episode. While fans that watched the show over the entire six-year run felt that each character was like a loved one or a friend, those who become obsessed with the show create only a partially formed image of who that character is. The characters and plots are not something that people actively understand, but just a constantly repeating stereotype which they understand superficially. If the masses of consumers continue to become obsessed with texts, they will become just another passive recipient of something that they think they want, but without knowing why.
According to a report published by the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, 22 minutes of how long one can expect to live is lost for every hour that that person watches television (Veerman, Healy, Cobiac: 2012). However, it has become an institution of family life and even social life, with people getting together to watch the newest episode of their favourite show and is, thus, an unavoidable part of the lifestyle of a normal consumer. This does not mean that passivity and art simplified to sensory entertainment is unstoppable. The crux is changing what we accept as true, normal or necessary as, at the very least, questionable.
How Can One Purely Enjoy Something without Becoming Obsessed?
Obsession is not inherently of no value, but it is, like everything better if practised in moderation. However, the very system of entertainment, where there is no in-built limit to stop or even slow the consumer has corrupted it and exploits the viewer. Still, the viewer is still not completely powerless over what he/she watches or reads. However, by looking at the many Reddit posts asking what one should watch next to recommendations on Netflix constantly being made, it is evident that the entertainment and art world is becoming more of a one-way street. While the recipients can demand for more of a certain type of film or television show, this removes the meaning of art to just fulfilling (or seeming to fulfil) a certain emotion. Comedies intend to make people laugh and feel happy, with no intention to make them think or even remember much about the movie. Action movies evoke excitement, and so on. This is not to conclude that enjoyment for enjoyment’s sake is a bad thing, but just that if it is constantly sought and constantly supplied, then it will become a subconscious habit. It will not be enjoyment any more, but just some reflexive sensory response. Art should bring to the conscious mind a sense of wonder and excitement, not a perception of wonder and exception to an unconscious one. So, is there a way to enjoy things without becoming “addicted”?
Similar to an addiction to specific substances, the first step is to admit that you (or indeed the consumer society) have a problem. Then, it is just a conscious choice of moderating your habits. Break up each episode or couple of chapters or films by at least a day. If that is too difficult, watch episodes of different shows over the course of a day, instead of just a whole season of television in one sitting. Think consciously about what happened during that episode or film and even discuss it with your friends or with others on the Internet. Regardless of what you do, art should be something to develop a two-way relationship with, not to sit in front of like a “zombie”. You should be the only one who decides what you want to put time and emotion into. It is something to enjoy because it is helping you learn who you are, rather than defining who you are.
Changing Minds. “Mere Exposure Theory.” http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/mere_exposure.htm. Web.
Cobiac, L., Healy, G., Veerman, J. “Television viewing time and reduced life expectancy: a life table analysis.” National Centre for Biotechnology Information http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23007179. Web.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
Love the article. It’s a great way of pointing a mirror at society when it comes to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus and just entertainment in general. It really is hard to balance work with entertainment, and it’s becoming harder and harder with so many ways of getting entertainment with phones and computers.
Thank you for commenting. I agree. It is not just balancing work with entertainment, but trying to internally justify the entertainment we seek, but the more we entertain ourselves, the less it is justifiable, as we stop enjoying it.
What a fantastic article! I particularly liked your last line “It is something to enjoy because it is helping you learn who you are, rather than defining who you are.” I think some people don’t see narrative as a way to understanding who you are, and that is always troubling to me.
I find myself more and more turning on Netflix just cause its there not because I’m enjoying it. Its getting harder and harder to find enjoyment so you just try to find more. Its so strange!
Thank you for saying so! It is a strange, yet addictive feeling and act, but in order for art and entertainment to hold any value, we, both as individuals and a society need to counter-act it, even if it is in small increments.
Due to a remote control being glued to my hand,I haven’t watched a complete programme,let alone a series, in years.
Sounds painful, would recommend trying to get into a show if you can.
With VOD i hope the standard of TV goes up.
I hope so too.
I can’t say (as a non-TV owner) I’ve ever felt any social pressure to watch certain shows, or binge watch, but its fun to discuss a show you really like with someone thoughtful who’s also watched it, and I think thats something we’ve lost from the days when everyone talked about what was on TV last night (ah, those long ago days). And of course the great thing about box sets and netflix is that it allows you to catch up on shows a season or two in, when you realise belatedly that its exactly the type of show you’d enjoy. But I’d never waste the time to watch something just because everyone else is talking about it.
Very interesting opinion, there, Fumik, and I would, largely have to agree with you, there. However, I, personally find it hard to resist not checking something out just because everyone is talking about it.
I have a wall with shows that takes a few seasons to break through when catching up. Mad Men took me two seasons to get into, and now I love it. Breaking Bad was one season. I’ve still never got there with the Wire.
I think it’s easier to get into a show when it’s still running, a lot of TV shows were not made for binge watching and are better appreciated by allowing a week or a few days to allow the episode to percolate through your mind, one of the joys of Breaking Bad for me was the week between episodes – turning over theories about the next episode, thinking about all the little character beats, discussing it with friends etc.
The shows now made to be binge watched are much easier to penetrate – Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, BoJack Horseman. They’re built to be watched sequentially and don’t employ the same tricks to make you tune in next week, and are sort of built to be discussed after you’ve seen them all.
It’s the difference between a serialised story and a novel – Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as a weekly originally, and I the end result has some weird turns, characters that drop out of existence and a meandering structure. It’s very episodic.
Novels written to be read in one go are generally more rewarding when read in sessions, rather than snippets.
I am having extreme trouble with The Wire, think I have watched the pilot three times.
The week used in most of the broadcasting schedules is needed, one for that break to let things sink in, but to endlessly speculate about the consequences of certain events, etc.
I would agree with something like Bojack Horseman, which is very dependent on intertextuality (i.e. explicit connections between episodes).
I suppose the interpretation of novels should be a more naturalistic thing, rather than just a chapter at a time.
Anyway, thank you very much for reading and commenting.
Great comment, and great article.
Thank you, lyle.
I tried with Breaking Bad, just after it had ended its’ run,assuming i was the only person who had never seen it.
Halfway through the 2nd series i gave up, loathed all the characters and got so bored just wondering why everybody was raving about it.
I, personally, can not fully sympathise, as I loved most of Breaking Bad. But, I do not think there is one television show which is “for everyone”. Feeling compelled or forced to watch a certain show is also something which could harm how we see it.
I’ve seen every episode – thought it was the best, most creative, most exceptionally acted TV Show I’ve ever seen. My brother and at least 4 or 5 friends were similarly hooked and enthralled. For me, it was nothing to do with media hype, more word of mouth. I still turn the ending over in my head. Anyway, none of this means much in the greater scheme of things, just wanted to counteract your hatred of something you didn’t even see through to the end….
Agreed, Euna. As a drama, only The Sopranos compares.
Binge watching is a very different experience than watching every week – some series seem ideal for it, some less so. After been encourage by various sci-fi loving friends to watch the full Battlestar Galactica a mere 5 years after it finished (2009), I enjoyed it enormously, but in watching an episode or two every night, the flaws in the series really show up in a way which wouldn’t be apparent if watched as it was made (20 or so episodes a year for 4 years). All the abandoned themes and plot arcs, character and story inconsistencies show up when an episode from a year before is so fresh in your mind. I also failed to binge watch The Soprano’s as every episode always seemed like a perfect little film in its own right. Each episode needs savouring. But Breaking Bad was perfect binge watching, it has such a fantastic pace and story, it kept me up more nights than was good for me.
Thank you for commenting. Been thinking about getting into Battlestar Galactica, especially since the ‘One More Episode’ Portlandia sketch. Same for The Sopranos, just do not know if I care about the subject matter of either. Very interesting comments, any way.
Yeah. That was a stressful month when I binge-watched all of Breaking Bad.
It was quality stuff, but it’s probably not good for us.
Efrain, I did the same thing in about three weeks. It was a dark time. Loved the acting, but it was a lot of dark stuff to process so quickly.
Tell me about it. Binge-watching BB should be only done with a priest and a therapist.
I rarely watch more than one episode of anything per day. Between the Sky box-sets, Netflix and Amazon Prime, the opportunities are there, but I’d rather watch two or three different programmes per sitting.
I admire your restraint. Thank you for commenting.
Great article! Having recently binged on 2 TV series, I found this particularly interesting. The faster you consume something, the less you take in; very true.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Amena.
I find that I cannot necessarily sit through one of these epics even if I’m tipped off soon enough to watch it “real time” (i.e. while it’s actually on the television). It’s too much of a commitment. We started watching “Lost”, for example, and it was as good as the previews said it would be – but it just went on and on and on forever. Our relationship broke down; it wasn’t “Lost”, it was me. We loved it, but we didn’t love it enough to make a long-term commitment to it and that’s what it needed. Twelve episodes will suffice, thank you.
Completely understand your trouble, Cutler. It is completely natural to reach a point in your enjoyment where it is not worth the effort. Having “binge-watched” Lost recently, I can see why you would lose interest in it over time, as it expects you to wait for answers for too long. That’s why shorter seasons and shows, especially shows like Utopia or Sherlock in Britain are beginning to gain traction.
Agree. All these US series are much, much too long. There is no real story arc which is planned to its conclusion before transmission starts. They just go on and on until the ratings drop and its not worth making any more, then some sort of ‘ending’ is bodged together. They are also padded out with hours of irrelevance – see the Perils of Kim in 24, and the Runaway Dana in Homeland. Give me a tight 6 or 8 episodes with no filler like Line of Duty, The missing or Broadchurch anyday.
Unfortunately, I have not watched any of the shows that you have mentioned, although I have heard good things about Broadchurch. A series I have discussed before is Utopia, another British show with a relatively short run, only 12 episodes. However, it did not really conclude itself at all. Anyway, thank you very much for commenting.
I definitely can see this. But c.f., Doc Martin.
I like TV and will happily sit down and watch a full season of something in a single day, I did a huge chunk of The Wire over the course of 4 days (and when I say a huge chunk I mean a full 4 days worth of episodes, eeek). I will do this with most shows even if I have scene something before I like watching episodes on mass, I think it’s the immersive nature of such an experience and getting lost in a good story as opposed to a compulsion for completion.
Thank you for commenting, Ewe. If you truly enjoy watching a lot of a show in a huge chunk, then go for it, just realise when it becomes less of a conscious choice and becomes more of a subconscious habit.
I am doing it right now with these comments. Binge reading.
Excellent read! There’s a weird thing about TV drama in that it seems quite possible to paint oneself as some sort of hardcore expert with ever referring to any show made more than about ten years ago. People just don’t seem to do that with literature, film or music to anything like the same extent.
Thank you for commenting, Pete. That is a very interesting point about how we like to see ourselves as experts without having a comprehensive knowledge of the history of television, or being “well-watched”.
I’ve largely given up on watching shows just because people keep on crowing about how brilliant they are. I’ve had too many experiences of trying out a show that from how people talk about it you would think was the greatest work of art ever made, but which on actual viewing turns out to be OK but hardly anything all that special.
I think that this is a by-product of hyping expectations. For example, The Wire is constantly touted as the best show of all time (or at the very least one of them), and therefore, one’s expectations is heightened to the point where their fulfilment is impossible. The key is not to change your expectations based on what others have said, but to watch something because you want to. Another recent text is ‘Boyhood’, where because I heard so many good things about it, and then a media company called RedLetterMedia (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lampOM4AhAk) hated on it pretty hard. Therefore, I was already against the movie without having seen one second and therefore, was biased based on essentially nothing, other than paratexts. Anyway, thank you for commenting.
Interesting article! I think at some point, I actually binged on binge watching-I can’t sit down and watch a whole season of a TV show in 48 hours anymore, which is probably a good thing.
Thank you for commenting, Jane. I think it is probably a good thing too, although overloading of something to the point where you can not physically do it any more is probably not the best way to get around the issue.
Very interesting perspective, great read. (I never got immersed in The Wire, perhaps I couldn’t understand the lingo? or they whispered a lot)
I enjoy getting obsessed with a show and look forward to watching. It always amazes me because when the show is over and I feel like what should I obsess over now? I quickly forget about it.
Thank you for commenting, Lauren.
Loved your article. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Horkheimer and Adorno, but your argument that an art form becomes a commodity would be something they would agree on (if I remember correctly). I agree that when you watch one episode after another, the details get blurred. I found that happening to me when I was watching House of Cards. Great job!
No, I am not familiar with either of their works. I think I have heard of both of them, though, might have subconsciously read a few of their concepts. Thank you for commenting. I am currently re-watching House of Cards, while leaving the space of a day between episodes and it is a lot clearer and, therefore, more enjoyable.
Thank you Matthew for your take on how society can get caught up in this cycle. I have a few favorites that I watch over and over. My first watch is for the story, then I go back and notice the writing, character development and subtle clues that I missed the first few times. I compare it to looking a work of art; depending on your perspective you see something new each time. That is if you open yourself up to it and some of these programs are very artful and some express our society very well.
I agree, there are a few which I can name, namely Six Feet Under, Twin Peaks, Utopia, Party Down, maybe Seinfeld, potentially House of Cards.
Loved this article. It’s such an important social issue – particularly in this modern age and not only do you address these concerns but you also provide some valid solutions. The speed at which products are being distributed, circulated and promoted is certainly overwhelming, which is amplified somewhat by the incessant social pressure to be “up-to-date” and “aware.” Often, the initial joy of reading a book or watching something is clouded by this and it’s incredibly tragic to see Art reduced to a commodity. It needs to be talked about and kudos to you, for doing a fantastic job. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Aliya.
OMG, I did this ‘binge watch’ thing when I had a an early century obsession with ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’… it took so long to get to the Beeb. Once, when the 2nd half of the Series 2 new box set came out, I drove 50 miles to a 24 hr supermarket at 2am, got it home (precious!) and watched the lot!!
I am not keen on binge watching. I am of the first UK generation to watch TV regularly as children, we had our first set in 1956 ( won in a raffle) when I was three. Since then TV programmes were an ” event” to be shared socially-whether it was the FA cup finals when uncles and cousins who did not have a TV crowded into the sitting room to watch, or whether it was anticipating and then talking about programmes with friends- Champion the Wonder Horse and The Lone Ranger to Pete and Dud and Monty Python, ToTP and OGWT to Dr Who and Sherlock. Days of the week and even times of the day ( Magic Roundabout!) were marked by favoured TV programmes. Although I accustomed to watching movies on DVD rather than the cinema (because I am deaf and rely on subtitles), it still feels very strange to sit and watch a TV series all in one go at a time of choosing, especially anything other than drama. Sometimes they don’t stand up so well as being watched one at a time, but times change I can see why it is done.
I am binge watching The Good Wife now! I used to watch it when I rmemebered and my DVR had space – so this holiday break I’m getting caught up Season 4 ep 5 right now lol
I can’t even imagine binge-watching. Drama on television plays out so-o-o-o slo-o-o-owly. If I’m stuck somewhere with the television on, I want to say to the characters, “Oh, go away and work it out for yourself, and stop bothering me!” But they can’t; they’re stuck in the script, which has to use up its allotted 27 minutes or 55 minutes or whatever. I’m the one who goes away, usually into a book — without regret, as so many characters in television shows are people with whom I would never want to spend time anyway, let alone discuss them with friends.
Each to their own, Rikki. I can understand your gripe with television drama, as there is a lot of filler most of the time, but I do not think it is completely without filler, and even some novels have filler.
Whereas characters in a novel have absolute agency free from author intention?
A lot of TV reminds me of writing things for school where you had to write 1000 words. You added it up and found you’d written 983, so you then stuck another 17 words in to make up the numbers. You weren’t adding to the story except more words to read.
And I get the feeling that’s what this TV is like. No-one is editing it hard because they have to make 12 hours of TV. You could trim most of them down by half and still tell the same story, but HBO/Sky want you to keep on subscribing and if they did they’d have to commission a lot more.
Somewhat agree with you, but that is part of the cookie-cutter system of television, I suppose.
Problem is, most tv is dross. Its ok for an hour or so here or there, but any more than that is just boring.
Why don’t people do something more constructive or enjoyable, like mastering a sport or learning a science or musical composition? Its far more fulfilling.
I would completely agree that it is more fulfilling, in the sense of developing oneself, but it does not mean that it is not satisfying. I am not sure what television series you have seen, but I would have to disagree with the comment that most television is dross. Perhaps, the sitcoms or episodic drama series (E.R.) may be dross, but television has developed into something rivalling the artistic integrity of literature and film.
While some people would enjoy mastering a sport or learning a science or musical composition, some do not, obviously. While I am not advocating taking up time consuming all of the valuable art works of the world, it is not completely valueless. I would suggest that self-development (i.e. first-person activity, i.e. the subject actively setting something in motion to receive some benefit) should always come before something which, in any physical sense, does not develop oneself (i.e. third-person activity, i.e. passively receiving something for a subconscious, but ultimately intangible benefit). Regardless, I think that the latter is still to a benefit, but as layed out above, it is to be done in moderation, and not to the disadvantage of any other prospects (e.g. learning a new skill, one’s professional career etc.).
Anyway, thank you very much for commenting.
I spend a lot more time reading books and discovering, listening to, reading/writing about and writing/recording music than I do watching TV programmes.
That is a very reasonable endeavour, Dot, but, I wanted the article to more convey the message that one should not excessively indulge in any art form (even music or books). Say, that you became obsessed with a certain artist, and would listen to their discography for hours on end, and would spend excessive amounts of money on purchasing their music or seeing them live, and so on. That would, in my opinion, be just as unhealthy as ‘binge-watching’ a television programme. All I wanted to convey via this article is that no art form or activity is free from obsession, nor more or less worth anyone’s time. No endeavour to consume art should be to define yourself as superior to others (e.g. bragging about finishing classic “hard-to-read” books, like Infinite Jest or Ulysses), but should be to enjoy it and reap some benefit anyway. I am not suggesting that you are doing these things, just trying to clarify what I was trying to convey via this article. Anyway, thank you very much for commenting.
After binge watching battlestar galatica this weekend I feel a shower and a jog are in order.
Had to comment with this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njr3aFpTMyQ
I don’t binge watch as i had a low attention span and hate doing the same thing for more than an hour or so. There is so much to do anyway who wants to sit in front of a screen all day, its bad enough having to do that in a job!
I don’t own a TV. Haven’t for years. This means I’m selective with what I watch (Netflix, Amazon Prime) – I make a decision rather than have it on as background noise & watch anything.
Great article Matthew. Very insightful, and very relevant. I’ve never really been one for watching things on streaming services because it ruins the idea of building a personal library of movies/TV shows that are unique to yourself, but after reading your article, I can’t help but wonder if in an odd way, it’s better to have a physical library so that you can tell yourself when and where you’ll watch what you want.
Many of my friends have a Netflix/Amazon Prime account, and they certainly enjoy the perks of having a lot of stuff to watch anywhere at anytime. But they also tell me that it’ll take them hours to get through an entire season of a show, and that binging has always seemed weird, because at what point do you just shut off and have that stuff going on in the background while you stare off into space about other things. I recall something that David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, said about enjoyment; he said that the more the brain gets used to something, the more boring or menial it becomes. For example, if someone plays the same video game over and over, they’ll go far beyond mastering it; they’ll be able to play it without having to think about it since they’ve become so accustomed to the controls. In essence, the same thing can probably happen with movies. If you watch them over and over again, or if you watch a lot of them in a row, then you can’t remember anything about them because you didn’t have a “resting” period where you digested what you saw.
Again, this is an outstanding, and very thoughtful, article Matthew.
Thank you very much, August.
It’s funny how ‘binge watching TV’ is now seen as the smart thing to do, yet only last year, pretty much the same people were slagging off compulsive TV watchers as indolent couch potatoes (and usually benefits claimants too boot). Personally I have other things to do, music and reading mostly; who does what to whom in a fiction TV series just doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things. That said a good factual history programme often has a much better plot anyway.
I have to believe that binge-watching has caught on mainly because most people are so busy with their lives, that binging a show allows for a sense of completion (but not necessarily enjoyment). With work, families, and a myriad of other responsibilities, it becomes very difficult for a lot of people to really sit down, watch, analyze, and then let sink in the events of an episode. I think many people don’t want to think so much when watching shows…they just want to relax.
But at the same time, people are conflicted because they want to be in the “know” and engage in the water-cooler talk that comes the day after a riveting episode with an epic plot twist. House of Cards, for example, is a show that really begins to fall apart the more and more you think about it; however, it’s the binge nature of Netflix and the show that doesn’t allow it for a more serious critique. By the time you start to think about a preposterous plot development, you’ve already moved on to the next episode. I personally prefer the simmer of watching a show week-to-week, letting the details of the story roll around, and letting a show build its mythology over the years. Ultimately, that feels so much more rewarding and it allows for a show to really find out its weaknesses and build to become better.
Completely agree on all points, Giovanni. Thank you for commenting.
You have a very interesting take on the phenomenon of netflix induced binge watching. I especially appreciate you looking at how the perception of the consumed text is affected by how (fast) we consume it. It’s true that many of the shows that I’ve watched and finished over short periods of time, have almost completely disappeared from my memory, meaning, I remember the characters and the basic premise as well as a few significant scenes, but the plot is all washy and the arc of the story has lost its intensity – very likely due to what you describe as those “sudden and unexpected events to elicit surprise and/or shock from its audience.” The cliffhanger candy that prevents me from stopping to watch also prevents me from looking at the larger picture, as my mind is focussed on just one exciting moment before the next exciting one – which in hindsight becomes less relevant, hence less memorable.
Thank you for commenting, mate. Glad you could get something out of the article.
This was a really great article that is making me rethink some binge-watching life choices. As a college student, I see binge-watching running rampant on campus and I feel like watching TV for hours is starting to become more normal than doing work.
I am glad I could make you re-evaluate the way in which you watch television. Thank you very much for commenting.
Great article & Nice info.
Thank you very much for saying so.
I think you would be interested to read Daniel Boorstin’s book “The Image.” His description of “extravagant expectations” deals directly with your subject matter. For convenience, here’s the introduction to the book:
In this book I describe the world of our making; how we have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life. I recount historical forces which have given us this unprecedented opportunity to deceive ourselves and befog our experience.
Of course, America has provided the landscape and has given us the resources and the opportunity for this feat of national self-hypnosis. But each of us individually provides the market and the demand for the illusions which flood our experience.
We want and we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. Our expectations are extravagant in the precise dictionary sense of the word–“going beyond the limits of reason or moderation.” They are excessive.
When we pick up the newspaper at breakfast, we expect–we even demand–that it bring us momentous events since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect “news” to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press. Returning in the evening, we expect our house not only to shelter us, to keep us warm in winter and cool and summer, but to relax us, to dignify us, to encompass us with soft music and interesting hobbies, to be a playground, a theater, and a bar. We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap and effortless. We expect a faraway atmosphere if we go to a nearby place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and Americanized if we go to a faraway place. We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night. We expect everybody to feel free to disagree, yet we expect everybody to be loyal, not to rock the boat or take the Fifth Amendment. We expect everybody to believe deeply in his religion, yet not think less of others for not believing. We expect our nation to be strong and great and vast and varied and prepared for every challenge; yet we expect our “national purpose” to be clear and simple, something that gives direction to the lives of nearly two hundred million people and yet can be bought in a paperback at the corner drugstore for a dollar.
We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for “excellence,” to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to a “church of our choice” and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God.
Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.
We are ruled by extravagant expectations:
1. Of what the world holds. Of how much news there is, how many heroes there are, how often masterpieces are made, how exotic the nearby can be, how familiar the exotic can become. Of the closeness of places and the farness of places.
2. Of our power to shape the world. Of our ability to create events when there are none, to make heroes when they don’t exist, to be somewhere else when we haven’t left home. Of our ability to make art forms suit our convenience, to transform a novel into a movie and vice versa, to turn a symphony into mood conditioning. To fabricate national purposes when we lack them, to pursue these purposes after we have fabricated them. To invent our standards and then to respect them as if they had been revealed or discovered.
By harboring, nourishing, and ever enlarging our extravagant expectations we create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves. And which we pay others to make to deceive us.
The making of the illusions which flood our experience has become the business of America, some of its most honest and most necessary and most respectable business. I am thinking not only of advertising and public relations and political rhetoric, but of all the activities which purport to inform and comfort and improve and educate and elevate us: the work of our best journalists, our most enterprising book publishers, our most energetic manufacturers and merchandisers, our most successful entertainers, our best guides to world travel, and our most influential leaders in foreign relations. Our every effort to satisfy our extravagant expectations simply makes them more extravagant and makes our illusions more attractive. The story of the making of our illusions–“the news behind the news”–has become the most appealing news of the world.
We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than we can make of the world. We demand that everyone who talks to us, or writes for us, or takes pictures for us, or makes merchandise for us, should live in our world of extravagant expectations. We expect this even of the peoples of foreign countries. We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid. They are the world of our making: the world of the image.
Nowadays everybody tells us that what we need is more belief, a stronger and deeper and more encompassing faith. A faith in American and in what we are doing. That may be true in the long run. What we need first and now is to disillusion ourselves. What ails us most is not what we have done with American, but what we have substituted for America. We suffer primary not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not be reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality.
To discover our illusions will not solve the problems of our world. But if we do not discover them, we will never discover our real problems. To dispel the ghosts which populate the world of our making will not give us the power to conquer the real enemies of the real world or to remake the real world. But it may help us discover that we cannot make the world in our image. It will liberate us and sharpen our vision. It will clear away the fog so we can face the world we share with all mankind.
Oh, and a link to it on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Image-Guide-Pseudo-Events-America/dp/0679741801
‘It is something to enjoy because it is helping you learn who you are, rather than defining who you are.’
I think we are losing the difference between the two. I have to remember it’s only a show anytime I discuss a show. Sometimes people get into really heated arguments, like what goes on with Game of Thrones, about nuances not applicable to a book as opposed to a television show.
I also don’t really refer myself as a fan anymore. I support the shows, but they don’t define even my attitudes or beliefs. People infer those two while not even asking “so what else defines you” to find out about experiences, or get to know you better. In fact hard-core television binging isolates people much the same way as alcohol or drugs.
Very well written and we should be really concerned about this feeling to infinitely extend these “pleasure seeking” activities. Happiness is a sensation, and none of the sensations last forever. We all know that. Seeking permanence in the smallest of the things is the root cause of misery.
Great piece! I am most certainly guilty of binge watching a few of my favorite shows online. It’s both exhilarating and soul crushing at the same time. lol
This is a great article that is so relevant right now. It is so interesting how binge-watching has become its own culture!
I agree completely with your comments regarding societies ‘we can have it all now, so why don’t we’ attitude. I am however more intrigued with your use of the terms ‘text’ and ‘art’. When I think of television shows or films I do not think of text, I think of imagery in motion and characters. I realize scripts are written in order to guide these forms of entertainment yet the imagery of text is ultimately not the final product perceived by viewers.
Moreover, as a visual artist I struggle with the increased pace at which consumers/viewers require new information. How is a painter, sculptor, photographer, etc., supposed to hold their ground creating intriguing static objects when they are in constant competition with fast paced ‘flash’ entertainment like film? To be obsessed with a television series nowadays seems probable and even acceptable but to be preoccupied with a painting or sculpture appears odd and uncommon. Apparently the average gallery visitor spends only 5 seconds or less observing an art object, is 5 seconds really enough to absorb all the details in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’?