You should stop pretending you don’t binge-watch TV shows, and if you already admit it, then you should stop pretending to be ashamed of it. Nobody will think less of you for demolishing an entire season of The Walking Dead last weekend, because we’ve all been there. Everybody poops. Everybody binges.
From a practical point of view, we binge because we can. The vast majority of all television ever produced is readily accessible online, particularly if you’re not discerning when it comes to picture and audio quality. Netflix is the worst kind of enabler, between their auto-play feature and the brilliant idea of dropping entire seasons of their shows all at once. As a result, nobody cares about actually making it into the living room at an appointed time and sitting patiently through the commercials which were previous generations’ penance for rotting their brains.
There has to be more to it, though. The consensus is that attention spans are now more accurately measured in seconds rather than minutes, and yet we’re capable and willing to sit in front of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones for hours. The average Netflix subscriber streams 87 minutes of video a day—four episodes of a half-hour comedy. We don’t just binge because it’s something to do and we’ve got time to kill. There is something deeper going on.
I binged my first TV show while I was studying abroad in Madrid during my junior year of college. I was maybe a little depressed—although it may have been somewhat by proxy as I Skyped with my then-girlfriend who had holed herself up in her stark University of Glasgow housing under the characteristically Caledonian pall of slate-colored clouds. In any case, I was kind of a shut-in. I lived in a disconcertingly trapezoidal room that had an odd sort of private hallway leading to the door, which was itself at the end of an apartment for international students that was basically one long hallway. My private hallway was due to the fact that the room literally enclosed the one adjacent on two-and-a-half sides. A narrow window with no screen looked out on what a realtor might have called a courtyard, but was really just dead space where three buildings were backed up against each other in a triangle.
The neighborhood around my building, though, was wonderful—centrally located, and within walking distance of at least three bookstores, two supermarkets, and an enormous park. The metro stop, from which I could connect to just about any point imaginable in the entire city, was barely 50 feet from the apartment building’s front door. So why, when I wasn’t in class or out buying groceries, did I spend almost all my time in that little cloister?
The truth was I didn’t live alone in that room. I shared it with the Fisher family, and I rushed back there every day and had trouble tearing myself away on the weekends because I wanted to bear witness to their story, their little dramas and hardships and conniptions. I’m talking about the protagonists of Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under, of course.
I binged Six Feet Under because for whatever reason I felt insecure and a little vulnerable walking down the streets of Madrid with my blonde hair and skin so pale it’s practically luminescent. Whenever I watched an episode, I didn’t have to feel self-conscious or unsure of myself, and yet it didn’t feel lonely, either. I usually watched two or three episodes a night. In spite of myself, I did manage to finally start feeling more at home there and come to develop a certain affection for the city, but by then my time there was nearly up. Was it a cowardly way to cope? Yes, definitely. But I learned something about myself and about the nature of entertainment.
Bingeing isn’t the same as watching a show one hour at a time, week after week. A single episode is just entertainment, a temporary diversion. But when you go immediately from closing credits to opening credits with hardly a pause, you’re allowing yourself to inhabit a world. The show can become a new reality for you in a way that isn’t possible with mere casual viewing.
It’s perfectly understandable, then, to binge when you’re depressed or unhappy. It’s a form of escape, a distraction from your real-life issues. But happy people binge, too, of course. I may have first gotten hooked on the idea as a way of escaping from my confused emotions, but I’ve since binged other shows during decidedly peaceful periods in my life. The fact is, you don’t have to be unhappy to be seduced by the promise of a different reality, one in which people are generally more attractive and always have something witty or poignant to say. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fourth wall.
As a society, I think we don’t indulge our fantasies enough. We call our dreamers naïve, and all too often, what we consider realism is actually just pessimism in disguise. So long as it doesn’t actively interfere with our lives (as it did for me in Madrid), there’s nothing wrong with bingeing if it lets us feel like we’re living out some of our fantasies. After all, we are each both the star and the audience of our own, personal TV show. Is it too much to ask to change the channel now and then?