How Did Binge-Watching Become a High-Culture Pursuit?

Television in the digital age.
Nov. 13 2013 11:48 PM

The Dirty Secret of Binge-Watching

It’s not as innovative as Netflix would like you to believe.

Yes, Netflix, I'll watch the next episode!
Yes, Netflix, I'll watch the next episode!

Screenshot courtesy of Netflix

It is a running joke between my mother and me that the thing I did as a kid that most reliably aggravated her was watch television. She would find me zonked out on the couch, survey my insensate and pale form leaching into the cushions, and say something like, “It is a beautiful day out. How much more TV are you planning to watch?” This calm opening salvo inevitably escalated to the more impassioned, but no more effective, “You are rotting your brain!”

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

Decades later, I am vindicated. If I were a kid today (pretend with me that kids today watch television) I wouldn’t need a future career as a TV critic to justify my lazy, indoor vice of choice. I could just tell her, the smart-aleck strong within me, “I am binge-watching.” Maybe she would join me on the couch.

Since my youth, the act of gorging on episodes of a serialized television shows like so many pita chips has undergone a makeover: It is now the culturally sanctioned activity of high-achieving, culturally literate adults who, as in the infamous Portlandia sketch, occasionally permit themselves to forgo showers and fresh air to watch TV all day and night long. It is also a major marketing strategy for certain quality-television purveyors with a reputation for being innovative.

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But is binge-watching really a higher form of consumption? TV is better than it once was, but having parked myself before MTV marathons, DVD box sets, and Netflix streams alike I am concerned that I am not being honest with myself. Was glugging six hours of The Real World as a teenager all that different from decanting House of Cards over two days as a discerning grown-up? I like to tell myself that I watch a show like Orange Is the New Black in 24 hours just because it’s great, but I think it might be just because it’s on. And in this new era, television is always on.

The term “binge-watching” first appeared in 1996, among X-Files fans on Usenet. According to Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, by the time Fox’s Kiefer Sutherland torture thriller 24 won an Emmy for best drama in 2006, it was being attributed to the show’s binge-watchability. 24, as it happens, is a perfect example of the way that binge-watching has been defined up. I devoured the first two seasons of that show after many glowing recommendations from friends over a feverish, paranoid two weeks, during which I was convinced that every single person on the street was carrying a dirty bomb. But as immersive and visceral an experience as that was, when I was forced to take a break at the end of Season 2—the one that featured the absurd cougar—and the adrenaline wore off, I saw that the show wasn’t any good. I never watched Season 3. But imagine if I had been watching on Netflix, and the choice was: Click on the next episode, or go out into the dirty-bomb-filled world? I might still be in that apartment.

Binge-watching has benefitted from a close association with excellent television, a proximity that has burnished it more than it deserves. Really great shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Orange Is the New Black and everything else you “have to watch” are fantastic to binge—but so are much lesser series, and whatever you get up to with Netflix in the privacy of your own home is probably proof of that.

If you are not the type of person who has ever lost an afternoon to a marathon of Hoarders, you may not be aware of how exactly it is like losing an afternoon to House of Cards. Binge-watching is the classy way of watching too much TV, the rebranding of a previously disdained activity that makes the sedentary life palatable to those people—say New York Review of Books readers!—who would once have foresworn it. To make matters explicit, in a new commercial, Netflix introduces us to one of its viewers, Karl, a white guy with Ira Glass glasses who is “a school teacher who loves photography and coffee. What he doesn’t love is junk mail and aimless channel surfing,” unless, as the commercial makes clear, that aimless channel surfing happens on Netflix. In that case it is a bougie hobby akin to taking Instagrams of your food and waiting 10 minutes for your drip coffee to pour over.

In my experience—which when it comes to binge watching, as should be clear, is vast—no matter how good a show is, there comes a point when I have seen too much of it. I get that particular sofa malaise; I really want to shower, wash my face, shake off the mental fog that has rolled in off the television. But I don’t. I keep watching, mostly from sheer inertia (or a deadline). When I do summon the willpower to pause, it’s only the decent stuff that I come back to. The time I am willing to spend away from a show and the quality of the show are, for me, directly proportional. What distinguishes a great show from a good-enough show is not how quickly I watch the next episode, but how long I would wait to watch it, if forced. Breaking Bad, unlike 24, House of Cards, or The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, was wonderful even when I had to pause a week between episodes. Though I am thankful I never had to find out, I think I would have waited months between episodes of Orange Is the New Black. And I took a two-year break after the end of Season 3 of The Wire, mourning Stringer Bell on my own schedule.

The truth about binge-watching is right there in the name. When we binge-eat and binge-drink we don’t just chug glasses of Château Lafite or stuff our faces with lobster. (Though maybe we would if they were close at hand.) Instead we drink watery beer and down potato chips. And like so much so-so TV, they can really hit the spot. This is why Netflix’s devotion to binge-watching is so canny, but not necessarily artistic, and why networks like FX, TBS, and TNT are currently fighting to be able to stream entire seasons of their own shows: Presented with a chance to binge-watch, people do.

When it comes to watching television, as long as you are getting up to pee in the bathroom, there is no right or wrong way to do it. But as you sit there sipping wine and eating pork belly, watching a marathon of The Sopranos—which sounds like a very nice evening—keep in mind that the distance between you and some imagined figure pounding Mountain Dew and Quarter Pounders while watching hours of Pawn Stars is not so vast. There are binge-watchers inside all of us; they just used to be called coach potatoes.

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