Binge-watching cheats you of connecting with characters

Sunday, November 15, 2015 - 5:43pm

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by the time warp of Netflix. Yes, I’m looking at every incoming freshman who thought their Netflix addiction was a noteworthy distinction to share in the “Class of 2019” Facebook page. 2015 will be remembered for coining “binge-watch” as Collins Dictionary Word of the Year and “Netflix and Chill” (the true connotation of which I discovered in a truly embarrassing way, but that’s a story for another time) as the new standard of relationship goals. I have felt the cathartic experience of a good binge-watching session. My emotional reaction to a weekend-long TV marathon, however, is not nearly as meaningful as my reaction to a killer episode of a show I’ve kept up with throughout its seasons. The series that have shaped my passion for television are the ones that I’ve stuck around with for the long haul, gradually nurturing relationships with my favorite characters that reel me into their alternate reality each week.

Back in the pre-DVR era, people would plan their schedules around the time their favorite TV shows aired. Obviously, watching TV live is almost an anomaly in modern day, and for good reason: Today’s fast-paced society leaves little room to work around the timeframe of a screen, especially when virtually anything can be found online. However, there is an undeniable sweetness that comes with waiting. In a culture largely void of suspense, where spoilers run rampant and social media never sleeps, there’s a bit of magic that only time can foster. After impatiently waiting for the story to continue, a new episode becomes precious, a sacred hour within an otherwise mediocre day. TV simply loses its special quality when the anticipation is eradicated, muting the emotional tribulations that boil throughout a week of eager excitement for the next episode.

Even 19th-century novel releases fostered a feeling of suspense, as newspapers would often print consecutive installments in monthly releases. Just like modern-day screenwriters, authors used various techniques to pique their reader’s interests until the release of their next chapter. Perhaps most iconic is Thomas Hardy’s suspense-building tactics, particularly when he left his protagonist hanging off a cliff at the end of one of his serials, thus coining the term “cliffhanger.”

But, when a cliffhanger’s “hang” only lasts for 15 seconds until Netflix automatically moves on to the next episode, the irrational panic a viewer would have felt for the fictional character throughout the week is now condensed to the time it takes to grab another snack. Binge-watching systematically cheats the audience of the plot’s full emotional effect, diluting the connection felt with the show’s characters. Building these relationships, however, is a key factor to becoming truly immersed in a series. Not surprisingly, ABC’s mega-hit, three-hour TGIT (Thank God It’s Thursday), consistently reels in high viewership by nurturing the weekly suspense that’s lost through bulk episode streaming online.

Netflix has undeniably made a splash in the industry with original series that are usually released in bulk episodes. The difference in the structure of these shows, like “Orange is the New Black,” compared to those released by episode is inherently different, designed for the perfect binge-watch. Instead of gradually building a relationship with the characters throughout the show’s seasons (as network series do), “Orange is the New Black” features a different woman’s background story in each episode. The single story installments allow viewers to explore their full emotional evolution for that one character’s story and are rewarded with a feeling of closure at the end. While major story arcs are developed throughout that incite the audience to come back for more, the difference in the show’s structure allows for a successful binge that most other shows do not.

I’ve found a direct relationship between the time it takes me to watch a show and how long it stays in my memory. The seasons that I inhaled in a matter of weeks are usually remembered as ones I’ve checked off of my to-watch list, while the shows that I have consistently tuned in for years have become an inherent part of my daily interactions. “House” sparked my interest in medicine, “Gilmore Girls” catapulted my coffee addiction and “Gossip Girl” was basically all I talked about as a tween. These shows spread across a larger portion of my life than my weekend binge session and, therefore, stuck with me as I made minute changes from week to week. I truly identify with the shows that I’ve been with for the long run. Binge-watching cheats me of that personal experience.