Confession: I (probably) had norovirus.

Confession: I damned 10 of my housemates to making offerings before our soon-to-be-besmirched porcelain idols for two to three days.

Confession: I spent my precious few conscious hours binge-watching “Rick and Morty.” 

Despite not being made for Netflix, “Rick and Morty” is the perfect show to binge-watch. The jokes are fast, the episodes are short, the animation is colorful and the premise is simple. The show has very loose continuity (and because inter-dimensional travel is a key plot device, I don’t think a viewer would have to watch the episodes in order to necessarily understand what’s going on).

But as I finished my latest binge-watching session, I had a bizarre realization: I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the show with. It’s not because the show is an empty calorie cartoon: “Rick and Morty” is unafraid to explore themes of existentialism and mortality alongside diverse topics such as feminism and imperialism (and do so coherently! It really is a testament to the sheer imagination of creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland). 

Upon some reflection, I think the biggest cause of this void was the way I consumed “Rick and Morty.” Instead of watching the show week-by-week, I watched the bulk of it at once on a sketchy Chinese website offering to sell me “Mail Enhancement Pills.” I indulged myself alone both spatially and temporally.

My memories of “Rick and Morty” don’t exist solely as a relationship between the program and me, they’re constructed by how I watched the show. Instead of watching it with a bunch of friends, I saw each episode in solitude. This has implications for how I interacted with it. According to Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Maryland, people laugh nearly 30 times more when they’re in a group than when they’re by themselves. The content may be the same for everyone, but how you engage with it changes depending on the individual. At the end of the day, I probably enjoyed the show less because of how I viewed it.

Our consumption has also become asynchronous. Television used to be a communal experience, even if you weren’t with anyone per se. The nation was tuned in to the same show each night. Cliffhangers had meaning. People could make predictions with each other while they waited with bated breath for the next episode. This doesn’t happen with shows that are available all at once, like “House of Cards.” The ebb and flow of the whole season doesn’t mean much if it’s all consumed in one week (or as is often the case, one night).

This phenomenon falls into a broader paradigm of the internet destroying synchronous rituals. Once again, we lose something tangible in our collective cultural consciousness. Memories are formed through repetition, and when we all devour a show like “House of Cards” in such a short time, we are more likely to forget the show’s content. It has become more difficult to mull over the show long after its time has passed.

I don’t want this column to be a simple polemic about how the internet is ruining society. There are historical analogues to this. Back in the ’90s, if you got into a TV show late, you would watch it on VHS after everyone else. However, VHS faced physical constraints on the number of episodes its viewers could access at a given time; viewers didn’t have access to every tape at once, and tapes held a limited amount of footage. But the accessibility of shows on streaming services — and the advent of shows released in bulk on those services — makes the phenomenon a much more common occurrence.

I don’t want to understate how awesome streaming services are; they let people watch shows when they want for them rather than forcing people to watch whatever is on. In addition to making television more convenient, people from all over the globe can enjoy “Rick and Morty.” Once again, this isn’t a totally unique process and there are additional important ways we can historicize this: Reading in the secular context has often been a solo endeavor. Book clubs are the exception, not the norm. But we do lose something when we watch a show all at once, not as individuals, but as a collective. That’s emblematic of what the internet does as a society: It empowers the individual but atrophies everything around them. 

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu.

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