My love-hate relationship with binge-watching

Thursday, September 8, 2016 - 5:10pm

“Stranger Things”

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I have a mixed relationship with binge-watching.

A fad that started with the release of TV shows like “24” on DVD in the early 2000s and was popularized by streaming services like Netflix, binge-watching has become all the rage. Still, as a TV viewer, I have an up-and-down relationship with the idea. On one hand, when a story is compelling, it’s hard to stop myself from pressing play on the next episode. On the other, there are times where I wish I would take a step back and reflect on what I’m watching.

This past week, I watched the entire first season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” The eight episodes feature the perfect combination of storytelling features for binge-watching: introducing elements of a mystery, twists and turns that changed the course of the show and a series of nasty cliffhangers that push you into the next episode. It’s a show that’s perfect for the Netflix model and is compulsively watchable. It benefits from the momentum that watching multiple episodes at a time brings.

For every show I find irresistibly binge-able, there’s a show I wish I hadn’t rushed through. I watched the second season of FX’s “Fargo” over the course of three days so I could include the show on my best-of-2015 ballot. As I made my way through the episodes, I found myself longing to take a step back and just think about what was happening. “Fargo” tells its story in a way that services a week-to-week viewing in how in unfolds its character arcs and stories. But instead of looking at each step along the way, everything blended together.

Yet, with some series, it’s impossible to avoid watching them on a binge. The biggest example of this is “Orange Is the New Black.” It seems that with every release of a new season, the race is on to finish every episode before you stumble upon a spoiler from a friend or Twitter. It took me a week to work my way through the season, and I was still unable to avoid finding out about the key death at the end of the show’s fourth season. The drama’s fourth season, in particular, is one that would have benefited from taking a step back to process each step, as it built a story with strong themes and some strong character arcs.

Yet, binge watching is a necessary part of my television diet. During a semester, it’s hard for me to keep up with more than a few shows at a time. During breaks, I take advantage of my time off to watch as many shows as I can, moving from show to show at a rapid pace. It’s easy to go from “Stranger Things,” to the back half of the second season of “unREAL,” to “BoJack Horseman,” to working through “The Get Down” in the span of a few weeks. It’s how I can get to even a tenth of the massive amount of scripted shows out there.

Ultimately, my issues with binge watching could just come from a lack of self-control. (What’s to stop me from taking a break between episodes?) But, with so many spoilers out there and having the next episode right there ready to play, it’s hard to avoid just powering through a season’s episodes. The TV industry is slowly changing to encourage this type of viewing. This is not only because of Netflix’s success with the model but also because of how networks are starting to push for the rights to stream every episode of a season during a show’s run in an effort to encourage viewers to catch up quickly.

But, the question remains: does binge-watching hurt the television I watch? The answer seems to be a mix of yes and no. For series like “Stranger Things” or “24,” it enhanced the momentum of the storytelling to see it without breaks or something separating it. For “Orange Is the New Black” or “Fargo,” a little more space between episode would have been appreciated to sort out the shows’ deeper thematic development. So, there doesn’t seem to be a right answer to whether or not to binge watch, which only makes my feelings of love and hate toward the practice even more unclear.