December 20, 2013


COME BINGE WITH ME (IAN CROUCH, 12/17/13, The New Yorker)

"C'mon, honey, just one more. Just one more." How many of us have made this minor bargain with ourselves or our co-watchers? (Back in the DVD era, the first season of "24," with its hour units of supposed real-time drama, was for me a kind of crucible, in that I could almost, with ready sustenance and economical bathroom breaks, fit the whole thing into a single day.) This is junkie talk, making Netflix's report feel a bit like a pusher touting the unexpected benefits of a drug to its clients.

Part of the problem is the phrase itself: binging on something is not traditionally considered an admirable behavior. No one ever says, "You know, I went on a wild charity binge this year. I just couldn't stop selflessly giving my time and money to incredible causes all over the city." "Binge" also carries the whiff of medical or psychiatric diagnosis, as in eating and drinking binges. It's hard, for example, to hear "binge" without thinking of "purge," part of the horrible cycle of disordered eating associated with bulimia. I'm not sure what a television purge would look like. Maybe reading a book?

Netflix would probably love for people to start calling it "immersive viewing" or some such, but that ship has likely sailed. This year, the phrase "binge watching" became increasingly common, largely because of Netflix's own practice of releasing original episodes of the shows "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development" en masse, leaving decisions about viewing up to the stamina and schedule of its subscribers. (Its own report prominently features the phrase.)

The company has a clear financial interest in making TV binges seem like a popular and ordinary choice rather than a compulsion, and can tout audience demand when convincing television companies to make more of their shows available for streaming. And binge watching may be just that: a basically undramatic choice to dedicate an amount of time longer than the traditional hour or half an hour over to a particular show. In its polling, Netflix found that seventy-nine per cent of respondents agreed with a prompt suggesting that binge watching made a show more enjoyable. That seems right: watching a show straight through can increase its dramatic density, making it easier to spot connections and motifs across the seasons. It helps keep thorny plots straight and characters in their proper order--and leaves the viewer alert to the intricacy of a good show. It saves time in the long run: fewer ads, no hours lost to Web recaps. People who haven't seen a show that all their friends are suddenly talking about can catch up quickly and join the conversation. And it can even allow for innovations to the medium itself, as Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator of "Arrested Development," showed to a mixed but invigorating degree in this year's new season bloc, which was full of callbacks and scenes replayed from different perspectives.

But it isn't a perfect way to watch. Binging makes a television series--something that might exist in the cultural consciousness for years--into a smaller thing. I ran through the first season of Neftlix's prison dramedy "Orange is the New Black" in just a weekend this summer. For two days, I was thrilled by it, but I haven't thought about it much since. The characters lived with me for a matter of hours, whereas if I'd been awaiting their weekly arrival they would have been a small, but real, part of my daily life. TV shows live beyond the bounds of their running time, and the binge model squeezes out all that air.'ll never see a critic complain about people binge-reading books that they like, nor writing that the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird didn't stay with them because they read it in two days.  

My current binge is Borgen, which had me right up until the final episode of Season 1, when the PM offered her husband a deal that he could cheat on her as long as he was discrete.  Caring that much about her political career is not just a turn off, but disproves most of her politics.

By the way, we would offer one pivotal defense of bingewatching: who wants to get involved with a TV series only to have it be cancelled before it ties up loose ends?  Waiting until the show runs its course lets you wait and see if the creators are allowed to finish what they started.

Posted by at December 20, 2013 6:06 PM

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