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Michele Willens Headshot

FACE IT: Binge-Viewing Is the New Date Night

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And here I thought my bingeing days were long behind me. Not since the requisite eating disorder in high school have I so often found myself in secret places, making up stories about my whereabouts, and feeling generally insatiable.

My name is Michele and I am a binge viewer.

I rush home and open my laptop -- not to check email or do bills -- but to enter Kevin Spacey's sleazy world as a Washington power broker in Netflix's House of Cards. I usually have my first viewing alone during the afternoon. If my husband calls to say he will be playing tennis late, I quickly recalculate: how many hours will it take to zip through episodes 9-11? If only he would take a business trip, I could also O.D. on The Wire and finish that one off once and for all.

Oh sure, we can ask the psychologists what all this means on a deeper level. I am sure words like "instant gratification" and "impatience," would come up. Maybe even questions like, "What ever happened to foreplay?" (Think about it) But I would counter that binge viewing is good for those whose relationships have gone a tad stale. No longer excited about going to a movie theatre to sit through all those trailers? Or a restaurant where you can't see the menu or hear your partners? "My husband and I find it really romantic, holding hands and spending our cozy weekends in the country watching four straight episodes of Friday Night Lights," says my friend, novelist Sally Koslow.

Holding hands? Something to talk about? Binge viewing is the new date night!

It may also be the answer to another question: how to reconnect with our outsourced kids? My friend John, for example, was halfway through the latest Robert Caro tome, when his son persuaded him that he needed to watch all five Breaking Bad seasons. "Hey, we do all kinds of things to feel closer to our kids," claims a red-eyed John, who is simultaneously exhausted and hopped up from his attachment to the show, and morose about the fact that "I haven't read anything in weeks." Sally, however, insists, "It's like a great novel. You go into a world and don't want to come out. Would you really want to read a chapter once a week?"

Finding a fellow bingee makes for an immediate comrade, though there can be conflicting emotions. When Jim learned I too was making my way through the mesmerizing adventures of a chemistry teacher turned illegal chemist, we huddled in a corner to compare notes. Did I detect a wee bit of competitive superiority on his part when he learned how far "behind" I was? When someone smuggled me a copy of the entire third season of Downton Abbey, (like most of the country, I was only on episode five) I held out for days. Well, hours. Then I decided I would just jump one ahead. By the next morning, I knew enough to spoil everyone's Sundays for the following month. This gave me no sense of smugness -- well, maybe just a tad.

I have also binge-bonded with three folks who I see every morning in the neighborhood coffee shop. While we used to boast about being the last people to actually take an hour and read the (actual) New York Times, now we spend our time recapping Homeland, Downton Abbey and House of Cards. "It would be one thing if all this stuff were bad," whined one of my morning mates. "Then I could either really feel guilty, or hopefully break my habit with some help. But these shows are so damn good."

I know what he means. Years ago, I worked in a TV newsroom and the monitors would play the station's programs throughout the day. We all found ourselves helplessly immersed in the comings and goings of General Hospital. The ultimate test: Would we watch the show while on vacation? Therein, at last, was the purge. That is much more difficult to achieve when bloated with Emmy-winning, water cooler quality.

All this, needless to say, is even more challenging when bingeing on multiple series at a time. I often find myself trying to recall who said or did something to whom. Was Roger Sterling tripping on LSD or cooking meth? Which one is Damien Lewis and which one is Dominic West again?

Theoretically, this embarrassment of riches would be easier in bites. I do look back rather fondly on the days of Roots, when we as a country were all watching the same show at the same time. (By the way, those episodes ran nightly for a week. So we got a bit of the binge.) But then, I never could eat just a handful of M&Ms.

There is no right or wrong here. Some claim that binge viewing, as Jim found, is a way to bridge the generations. Though I now truly fear for my 19-year-old son who got through The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad and is now discovering Law and Order! That could literally eat up his entire young adulthood.

Personally, I don't have those kinds of years left. One suggestion I might offer, at least in heading off the glut, is Binge Prevention. It's fair to say I did that with Treme, which I did not love the first season. But I had enough confidence in creator David Simon (for whom I had binged on The Wire) to stick with it. To that point, I highly recommend you go back and watch the first (relatively short) two seasons of BBC America's The Hour. You will thank me later.

Who knows? If we wait long enough, we may find that binge viewing turned out to be healthy for us. In his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, author Steven Johnson writes, "Eventually, like some crazed addict searching for an ever-purer high, I find myself designing my own simulations." In that case, he was defending the playing of video games as good for focus, math skills and hand-eye coordination. Perhaps video bingers show exceptional long-term concentration that goes against the ADD-ing of America. This may cure insomnia! Weight loss? We may not be burning up calories since we are stationary, but we are so reluctant to stop, that even a trip to the kitchen is out of the question.

Withdrawals? I've had a few. But even on a weekly basis, I suffer serious depression when Jon Hamm goes away for a year. I confess not only do I miss my binged shows when they end, I miss the activity itself. And what the hell am I going to do with all this time?

Personally, my short-term pledge is to finish House of Cards imminently; return to Breaking Bad for the final season and a half; and resist diving into Dexter, which I am told is right up there with the best.

Yeah, and I will only have a few of those M&Ms too.

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