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The pitfalls of binge-watching

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - September 11, 2015 - 10:00am

There was a point in my life — and I remember this with an astounding clarity unique to memories that can only be described as “weird” — when I religiously followed the TV show Felicity. This was weird for a number of reasons. One: It was basically a college version of Dawson’s Creek, a show I immediately hated strictly on principle. Two: I was already 21 then, but the “Ben or Noel?” storyline easily turned me into an anxious 14-year-old girl. Three: Unlike the consensus at the time, I didn’t think Keri Russell’s Season 2 haircut ruined the show at all.

Four, and most interestingly: Felicity is the kind of show I wouldn’t have watched if it came out today, not because I’m too old for YA (full disclosure: I watched Paper Towns and The Fault In Our Stars), but because I wouldn’t even have a chance to find out that I actually like it. The TV landscape has changed so much that shows like Felicity will never sneak into the lives of 20-something dudes ever again.

We still call TV shows “TV shows,” the same way we call smart phones “phones”: through sheer laziness. Foreign TV shows aren’t really from television any more than smart phones are still telephones. They are now mostly online products of the Internet: downloaded, streamed, discussed, and even watched in the same devices we use for online living. They are no longer fixed items on our weekly calendars, no more “Must-See Thursdays” on NBC, no more Felicity on Thursday nights on a local channel rare and essential enough to form unexpected habits.

Video on demand

Foreign TV shows now exist in a timeless and perpetually replenished database that conforms to our schedules and not the other way around. This has increasingly become the rule with the emergence of VOD (video on demand) shows: Netfilx’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Narcos, Sense8, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Daredevil and House of Cards; and Amazon Video’s Hand of God, among others. TV shows no longer choose us; we choose them. And we’ve been binge-watching the hell out of them.

But binge-watching was already a common practice long before Amazon and Netflix decided it would release entire seasons in one drop. People have been downloading and hoarding episodes of their favorite shows and watching them in long marathons for years. Binge-watching, it seems, is this impulse that has always been there, itching for some technological validation all this time. It seems that following shows on a regular schedule was never our natural inclination; that it was more of a pre-Internet necessity, like rewinding cassette tapes with pencils.

Yet I don’t intuitively think that this is true. Despite my best efforts, despite faster Internet connections and long weekends, I still cannot bring myself to binge-watch. There’s just something about watching more than three hours of the same thing that I find numbing and overwhelming at the same time. I still fall in love with characters. I still lose myself in their stories and individual motives. But I still feel the need to step back from their worlds for long periods of time.

‘Show me a hero’

HBO’s recently concluded mini-series Show Me A Hero was such a thrill to watch, not only for its compelling depiction of the public housing controversy in late ‘80s Yonkers and the slow descent of the mayor who fought for it, but also for its perfect use of time. Every week, HBO would show two episodes in succession and each one would breeze through its plotlines with clean and lucid exposition (in other words: the complete opposite of True Detective Season 2). Then they made you wait. Show Me A Hero only had a three-week run, but the days in between were the perfect counterweight to its swift pace. I don’t think it would have worked the same with a Netflix series. You had to feel the Mayor age from a fierce 28-year-old leader to a desperate 30-something bureaucrat. You had to feel the protracted suffering of the inhabitants of Yonkers’ decaying housing projects. The breaks in between every week gave the series something that its pace could not — the painful passage of time.

Maybe TV shows were meant to be buffered by time. Maybe they’re like fine wine — better tasted slowly than guzzled down. Maybe seven days is the ideal time for characters and scenes and themes to simmer in one’s mind. A show like Mr. Robot, for instance, which is equal parts psychological journey and plot, is better with extended breaks. I caught on to the show pretty late and already had the first five episodes when I started watching. I was never tempted to watch all of them in one sitting. I liked living with Elliot’s paranoia for entire weeks and basking in the not knowing. I like to pretend that it’s still 1999 and I can’t wait to wait for Felicity to come back.

This isn’t another one of those “What’s wrong with these kids?” rants about how things were better back in the day. “TV” is better now. It’s not even a debate anymore. The Golden Age of Television isn’t over. For every Mad Men and Breaking Bad that ends, there’s a Mr. Robot and a Narcos that come along. There’s so much good TV that it’s almost impossible to keep up with all of them. If Felicity came out today, it would be lost in the crowd. There are no more lazy Thursday nights where I get to stare at anything the TV emits and learn to love it in some sort of harmless Stockholm Syndrome. Those days are gone forever.

But I can still watch TV shows the same way, if I choose: slowly, an episode at a time, letting imagination breathe in the gaps between. I also still watch them on an actual TV. I don’t get why you’d want to watch them on smaller screens. What’s wrong with these kids?

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Tweet the author @colonialmental.

ACIRC ALIGN BUT I LEFT MR. ROBOT QUOT SHOW SHOW ME A HERO SHOWS STILL TIME
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