It is a running joke between my mother and me that the thing I did as a kid that most reliably irritated her was watch television.
She would find me zonked out on the couch, and say, “It is a beautiful day out. How much more TV are you planning to watch?” This calm opening salvo inevitably escalated to the impassioned, but no more effective, “You are rotting your brain!”
Decades later, I am vindicated. I could just tell her, the smart-aleck 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.
It is also a marketing strategy for certain quality-television purveyors with a reputation for being innovative.
But is binge-watching really a higher form of consumption?
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 “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.
Good TV, bad TV
Binge-watching has benefited 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 have never 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 disdained activity.
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 Chateau Lafite or stuff our faces with lobster. Instead we drink watery beer and down potato chips. 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 FX, TBS and TNT networks are 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, 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.
Paskin is Slate’s TV critic.
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