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Confessions of a Binge Watcher

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In a recent Portlandia sketch, Doug and Claire (Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein) decide to watch just one episode of Battlestar Galactica before going out to meet some friends. When the episode is over, Doug says "Wow, that was so well done!" And Claire says, "OK, let's watch one more."

Several days later, they have lost their jobs and are still sitting on the couch, pasty and bug-eyed, smoking through episodes like a couple of televisual crack heads.

In an interview with CNN, Armisen says, "We (Portlandia co-creator Jon Krisel, Carrie, and I) were talking about how people really get into watching a whole season of a show at once. We all do it. Just going from one episode to the next, all the way through."

My first experience with bingeing on episodes of a television drama was in Pittsburgh when I was in graduate school and my drug of choice was Law and Order: SVU. It seemed like SVU was on 24 hours a day, and it was a perfect hangover cure. After a heavy night drinking left me with one of those soul-crushing, Jack Kerouac Big Sur type hangovers, I would compulsively watch for six, eight, twelve hours, sometimes more.

There was something about Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson that made the deep despair of being really hungover manageable. Olivia's sexy, compassionate strength made me want to hug and be hugged by her. When she was telling a special victim they were going to be OK, she was really telling me that I was special and going to be OK. While my wrecked body lay torpid on the couch, my imagination ran wild with fantasies of Olivia as my mother, my lover, my friend. The heinous crimes on SVU comforted me with the fact that my life wasn't that messed up and that, occasionally, there was justice in the world. These fantasies massaged my alcohol-drenched cortex, helping me get myself together for the week ahead.

When future U.S. historians look back on these times, they will most likely write about the resurgence of American imperialism, the death of neoliberal capitalism (hopefully) and the ascendance of the American television drama. Someone smarter than me can analyze the dialectical relationships between those phenomena, for now I want to concentrate on the latter.

As an expat living in Korea, my appreciation for the American television drama is probably greater than what it would be if I were still living in the states. The first drama I discovered after moving to Seoul was The Wire. I didn't have access to HBO or Showtime when I was living in the states, and as a graduate student and then adjunct English professor, the idea of purchasing a television series was simply out of the question. And even though I went to grad school at tech savvy Carnegie Mellon, I had no idea how to make a torrent work for me. Now, the torrent is a cultural umbilical cord that keeps me fully nourished with representations of old, weird America.

After watching the first episode of The Wire, like Doug and Claire, I exclaimed, "That was so well done. I'll watch just one more." I proceeded to watch three or four episodes a night, more on the weekends, and completed all five seasons in two weeks.

After The Wire came Breaking Bad, Mad Men and True Blood, and Boardwalk Empire. I recently discovered Justified and Shameless. Fortunately I have classes to teach, a second book to write, outdoor hobbies, in other words a life, which means that long periods of time pass when I don't watch anything apart from YouTube posts on Facebook. Which is fine because the longer I abstain, the bigger my stash when I decide to go on a binge.

I nursed a particularly bad post-NYE hangover by watching the first season of Shameless (U.S. version) a raunchy, working class revision of that classic Carter-era suburban family drama, Eight Is Enough. Now I'm stuck watching one episode a week, which sucks. Fifty minutes come and go so fast that I'm merely skimming rather than really experiencing life in the Gallagher family. Fortunately I will be traveling in Thailand next month, which means that at least four episodes will have gone unwatched and I can go on a Shameless bender when I get back home.

Just as it takes several days out in the woods when you're camping to really appreciate what's going on with nature, it takes at least two episodes to delink from whatever is going on in your life or the world so that by the third episode you're there, and by the fourth episode you're gone. It's best to watch late at night when you are too tired to do anything else. Then things sink in deeper, and your responses are more emotionally intense -- something I learned from Benson and Stabler.

After watching a drama for several hours every night for several days in a row your dreams begin to consistently organize around characters and plotlines; sleep becomes an extension of the show, a place where you can slide in and out of various characters, making and remaking stories according to whatever troubled memories and desires are lurking in your unconscious.

Binge-watching also saturates everyday life. When I was addicted to The Wire, I felt like I had a bit more swagger and began to pepper my language with a few too many bits of urban patois. As I was binging on True Blood, I felt like everything was little steamier and everybody was a little sexier. Lately, when deciding whether I should have one more drink or go home, I remind myself that I'm not a pathetic alcoholic like Frank Gallagher, and then order several more rounds before passing out.

Being immersed in the microscopic unfolding of characters, relationships and ethical crisis situations stimulates the same kind of pleasure we get from novels. The sophisticated, morally and politically ambiguous narratives that make up this golden age of the television drama are realistic and stereotypical, historically specific and mythological, exotic and easy to relate to. The biological pleasure we get from novels and dramas, which probably comes from a boost in oxytocin levels, can only really be tapped into by binge-reading and binge-watching. Just think how unsatisfying it would be to read your favorite novel five or ten pages at a time, or worse, with commercial interruptions. You can do it, and I'm sure many overworked mothers have no other choice. But it's much more fun to turn everything and everybody off, bunker down, and read all day and late into the night. That's when the boundary between you and the novel disappears, and it's a great feeling, just ask any Harry-Potter-devouring child, or The Hunger Games addled teen. Or don't bother asking because they probably have both you and the world tuned out.

In a recent article for the New York Times, "Why Write Novels at All," Garth Risk Hallberg summarizes common sense wisdom these days about the function of the novel:

The idea that 'the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness' crops up all over the writing of the Conversazioni group: in Franzen's nonfiction, and in Wallace's, and in Smith's beautiful encomium to Wallace in her book of essays, 'Changing My Mind.' It also helps to explain these writers' broad turn away from various postmodern formalisms and toward the problems of the human heart.

Like good novels, good dramas make us feel connected, make us care deeply about problems of the human heart, even when, or especially when, those affairs are mediated by an underpaid high school science teacher/meth cook with cancer and his tweaked out little buddy. But the oxytocin-boosting act of binge-reading, like that of binge-watching, also intensifies the experience of solitude, an important pleasure in and of itself. Binge-watching is best done alone, or with a close friend or lover, but that's it. If any more people get involved, then it becomes a social event, which is fun, I did that with Buffy in graduate school, but it's a different kind of experience.

This pleasurable tension between feeling very connected and very alone expires when the season, or god forbid, the series, ends. Doug and Claire panic when they realize that they just watched the last episode of Battlestar Galactica and there aren't any more. During their marathon viewing session, they become extremely close to the characters on the show, and to each other, but very disconnected from the world. When it's over, they frantically search the Portland Yellow Pages looking for the writer of the series. They track down an elderly African American gentleman living in Portland with the same name and beg him to write a just one more episode.

When a drama ends, feelings of dread and despair are an important part of the aesthetic experience of binge-watching. There are going to be a lot of fucked up people out there when Breaking Bad is finished. But sooner or later, it will end, and our incredulity when it does won't be too different from how we feel when a friend or family member dies, or when we experience our own death, "Are you serious? That's it? It can't be over! Just one more episode!"

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