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The Case Against Binge-Watching

When I hungrily consume beloved series, I wolf them down without always appreciating them

In 2008 when Season One of Mad Men first became available on DVD — this was the olden days, before streaming services — I rented the first disc through my Netflix account. (Seriously, this was so long ago.) My wife and I were excited to start catching up with the acclaimed series, and so, we watched the three episodes available on that disc in quick succession. But when they were over, I said what might seem like a weird thing: “That was really excellent — it was just as brilliant as I’d been told it was. And now I think I’m done.” I never bothered watching another episode of Mad Men, which always strikes friends as odd when I tell them this story. If I had liked the show so much, why didn’t I want to see more? Why stop there?

I’ve thought a lot about those questions in the last 10 years, especially when anybody mentions their love of Mad Men. Sure, I have a little FOMO, but almost immediately, I’m hit by a stronger, contradictory impulse. Those first three episodes weren’t just amazing, they were basically perfect — so perfect, in fact, that I didn’t want to risk it by watching more. I have no doubt that Mad Men went on to greater heights and that I’m poorer for not continuing on the ride. But the show also never got worse for me, unlike the experience that occurred for lots of longtime fans who followed along with the program’s highs and lows. For me, perfection is better — it’s a shorter ride, but the emotional aftereffect is far more rewarding.

I say all that not to convince you I’m right — I’ve futilely discussed this with enough people, each of whom looks at me like I’m crazy, to know that this is a decidedly minority opinion. And no doubt streaming sites like Netflix are grateful for that, considering their entire business is built around our ravenous desire for more, more, more from our favorite shows. Just this month alone sees the return of Netflix’s Arrested Development and the premiere of Hulu’s Aidy Bryant series Shrill, whose six-episode debut season premiered on Friday (and whose producers are optimistic for a second season). These studios don’t just want you watching — they want you binging.    

We’ve had years of doctors and scientists warning us about the potential downsides to our health that come from binge-watching, including sleep deprivation and an addiction-like state that can lead to depression once you polish off an entire season. (And, to be sure, there are also counter-narratives that argue why a targeted binge can be a very good thing for you mentally.) I’m not so concerned about the physical/mental effects of binge-watching. (Please watch responsibly, everyone.) I am interested, though, in how the very phenomenon of binge-able seasons encourages us to value quantity over quality. Who needs perfection when you have three more episodes waiting in your queue?

To be fair, “perfection” is an arbitrary, perhaps impossible-to-attain measure of artistic quality. (Besides, you may be binge-watching something precisely because it’s not aspiring to any sort of artistic quality — you’re there to enjoy its delicious trashiness.) It’s also pretty snobby, dismissing what other people enthusiastically consume as clearly being inferior to the stuff you prefer.

But if I can be allowed to be snobby for a second, one of the great pleasures of TV shows or movies is the ability afterwards to savor what you’ve absorbed — to let that greatness seep into your bloodstream and nervous system. (I love watching a terrific film — but I love even more talking about it with a friend right after.) Binging is a different sensation — it’s a mad rush, an itchy fever. It’s more about holding onto the sensation of hanging out with a group of characters, or living inside a fascinating plot, and not wanting it to end. We click on the next episode to find out what happens, but we also just want the feeling to last a little longer.

I’m not immune to the rush, but I also notice its limitations. When I wrote about the new season of Better Things, FX gave me a link to a series of episodes, which I downed in about three sittings. I’ve loved that show since its 2016 premiere, but I recognized that I was interacting with this new season in a different way. I was hungrily gorging on it, partly because I knew I had so many episodes available to me. The unfortunate disadvantage to that abundance is that, now in retrospect, I have a tough time recalling what happened in specific episodes. It’s all just one (very entertaining and moving) blob of entertainment, lacking in my mind the sharp contours and individual arcs that make the show so wonderful. The show’s quality hadn’t been lessened, but my relationship to that greatness had been dampened a little because of the way I woofed it down. Honestly, I’m looking forward to seeing the episodes that weren’t made available in advance to critics — on a week-to-week-basis, I’ll be able to enjoy them patiently, in a slower, more measured way.  

As has been pointed out by The New York Times’ Matthew Schneier, Netflix hardly invented binge-watching. DVD box sets and movie marathons were around long before anyone had heard of House of Cards. But in that 2015 piece, Schneier noted that the post-binge blues was a real thing, leaving audiences depressed after downing a season but also hangrily demanding its creators give them a new string of episodes immediately. House of Cards creator Beau Willimon told Schneier, “Certainly there are people all the time who are tweeting at me and saying ‘I can’t wait until the next season’ or ‘How long do we have to wait?’ I think if they had their druthers, we’d be able to pump them out faster than a year at a time.”

“Pump them out faster” is such an evocative phrase for the new relationship that binging has created between audience and storytellers. It’s not that we don’t care about quality — if a show was terrible, people would stop watching — but we’ve come to assume that our favorite binge-able shows are this inexhaustible supply of incidents and plot twists. We get sucked into a narrative, and we just want another hit. And the longer a show has been around, the faster we watch when we get more of it: In 2016, Netflix’s vice president of original content Cindy Holland revealed, “The general trend we noticed is that subsequent seasons are consumed even faster than the preceding seasons.”

This explains why, for instance, there’s a second season of Ozark. Obviously, Season One was successful enough in terms of viewership (and, I’d argue, artistic merits) to warrant more episodes. But by Season Two, which I consumed pretty quickly, I was becoming aware of how repetitive its formula was. I was watching, in part, because I was writing about it, but I also noticed a Pavlovian response to my desire to click the next episode after the previous one ended. That one was just okay, I thought to myself, but maybe the next one will be better. The compulsion to stay in the world of these moral monsters and see what complications would arise — even if those complications had grown predictable — was palpable. We were far from perfection, but I can’t even say it was a particularly fun experience anymore. I was simply watching to watch. I had stuck with the show this long, right? Might as well keep going.

Television shows — and, more and more these days, Hollywood movies — are about stringing us along in perpetuity, keeping viewers returning again and again to catch up on the latest happenings on their favorite sitcoms or dramas. (And that’s to say nothing of people like me who can’t get enough of Law & Order, Simpsons and Seinfeld reruns, even though I could — and sometimes do — repeat some of the dialogue verbatim.) But one of the things that made me stop watching Mad Men is that those three episodes’ self-contained excellence felt like a great way to close the book on my relationship to that series. It was uncomplicated, no strings attached and no bad feelings.

Once a great show gets its hooks into you, then you crave it — you almost become a slave to its machinations and rhythms. (And when an acclaimed series gets cancelled, like Netflix’s One Day at a Time did earlier this month, the loss can understandably feel like a betrayal to loyal, passionate viewers.) But craving isn’t necessarily the same as really marinating in a program’s greatness — it can feel a little more glutinous and a lot less thoughtful and considered. Maybe I’m too Kondo-ish in my approach to entertainment, but I find I want to be careful in how I binge. I don’t want to lose what brings me joy by having too much of it. Sometimes, we need to love something so much that we’re cool with being done with it.