I just entered “binge watching” into Google and there is actually a Wikipedia page dedicated to the phenomenon—or whatever it is. The L.A. Times defined it as “any instance in which more than three episodes of an hour long drama or six episodes of a half-hour comedy are consumed at one sitting.” Let this serve as our definition.
And by these statistics, I confess, I binge watch every, single, night. I don’t know why but it’s just on: unquestioned streaming.
So if, like me, you have a mild case of insomnia and refuse off-label anti-psychotic medicine, the effect of which is the confusion of tiredness for hunger, then, before bedtime, don’t watch documentaries about China’s global economy. Don’t watch an exposé on hydraulic fracking that will terrify you to no end. Don’t watch serial killer profiles called Dahmer, Gacy, or Bundy. Don’t start a 12-episode, 12-hour series at midnight on the history of film narrated by a man whose Irish brogue has intoxicating audio-effects.
Whatever you do, at these night-creeping hours, do not watch any film made by Stanley Kubrick or any film theorizing about the films made by Stanley Kubrick. Same goes for Lynch, especially “Eraserhead.”
I confess, and with a degree of dread, to taking part in all the above activities.
So I used to have a substantial opiate habit. If you have not taken opiate in large doses and in astronomical frequencies, I’ll just illustrate the feeling: imagine a bottomless bed of temper-pedic foam and goose-feathers that you sink into unto death. It’s a warm void, perhaps like the womb. If you don’t take the opiate, or suddenly stop or run out or what have you, it feels like you’re lying on a bed of sharp icicles infested with millions of red firey ants. It’s in your best interest, if addicted to opiate, to take it as needed, being, all the time.
Before my reliance upon pharmaceutical smack, I sucked at sleeping. In high school, I played online poker all night and morning. My very Jewish and mildly scary pediatrician gave my mother the advice to “yank the fuckin’ chord out of the wall.” Didn’t work. But before poker, I used to talk all night on the phone to girls I was too afraid to speak to in person. Before that, I used to sleep in my brothers trundle bed and at 10 p.m. CST we would watch an episode of “The Simpsons.” Promptly, at 10:30, the TV would be turned off and I’d lie awake for hours afterward. I’d rather listen to my brother sleep than be in the silence of my own room trapped in the loudness of my rattle-brain.
And I have only a mild case of insomnia. It’s 12:31 a.m. CST and as I write this season 4, episode 4 of “Parks and Recreation” is streaming on Netflix. Nick Offerman just said, “This forum, like all public forums, is a complete waste of time.” So now that the opiate is out of the picture and online poker is outlawed in the U.S. and I have a lady-friend whom I often speak to in person and my brother doesn’t live with me, Netflix is my new sleep aid, or anti-sleep aid, or as already stated: I don’t know what it is.
Can such a banal and lame-bourgeois-American thing to do at night by yourself be worth any critical investigation? I’d say binge-watching warrants at least a look.
Somebody schooled in the addictions or counseling or psychobabble-101 may say, Well, Zach, it seems what you have done is merely replaced one addiction with another. Your now absent heroin binges have manifested in the form of Netflix binges. Sounds preposterous when said out-loud but the word heroin can be replaced with “House of Cards” and make total, logical sense. I swear just one more “House of Cards” and I’m done or, I did “House of Cards” all night last night or without “House of Cards” I cannot sleep. If I don’t inject “House of Cards” every four-to-six-hours I will get very fluish.
“House of Cards” can then be replaced with “Breaking Bad,” “Twin Peaks,” or “Orange is the New Black.” You-name-it, I’ve binged it.
And believe it or not, social theorists, researchers, and philosophers are actively tackling binge-watching. In an entirely original and engaging essay called “The Absolute Nothing of Binge Watching” written by Frank Smecker, he said that it is,
“Not entirely unlike substances that lack the very thing that defines them: decaffeinated coffee, sugarless candy, beer without alcohol, and on and on. In a sort of hedonistic-qua-ascetic way, these de-substantialized substances exist for the sole hedonistic injunction to enjoy more substances. In this sense precisely, the very lack, the immanent failure of finding that phantasmatic satisfaction-as-object, the utter lack of a discernible limit, propels one to immerse oneself in the full (non-) enjoyment of binge-watching, in order to embark upon the Sisyphean search for this enigmatic object as such.”
In English, the thesis of Smecker’s statement is that unlike the anorexic who eats “(no)thing,” the bing-watcher watches a whole lot of something that, perhaps on par with heroin addiction but of course not nearly as destructive, always amounts to nothing. Does that make sense? In a sense, I am chasing an ephemeral something episode after episode, i.e. entertainment or pleasure of some kind, but in another sense, I’m actively muting. The show streams so my brain doesn’t have to. I can lie there passive, absorbing what little substance there is in programs that are (made to be?) binge-watched. It’s not that the programs in themselves lack substance, “Parks and Recreation” is oozing substance, but the activity of binge-watching somehow de-substantializes. The activity is a meaning vacuum.
All of this hedonistic watching ends up creating a fictitious connection, a kind of acceptance through others. I watch all of these shows so while I am out during the day, in-the-world and with people, inevitably, TV, entertainment, and “culture” will be mused about and I can join. I can spew my novel understandings, my thoughtful interpretations, the kind that make people go “Hm.” Or the more unlikely navel-gazing that make people say, “Interesting,” like, that I secretly root for the theory that Kubrick really did fake the Apollo moon-landing.
Whether or not binge-watching is an addiction, a compulsion, absolutely nothing, or occurs out of the loneliness when alone so snuggling next to a warm laptop in your bed with “Sherlock” streaming is the next best thing to snuggling up with an actual Sherlock, is up for you to reckon with. Binge-watching is an activity that is here to stay and our eyes reliance upon screens will only increase.