Is Binge-Watching Turning Us Into Junk TV Viewers?

In the scramble to make sure there’s enough content for audiences to binge endlessly, what will happen to the quality of our TV programming?

What did you think of the first season of Netflix’s “Love”? You know, the Judd Apatow-produced romantic dramedy featuring Gillian Jacobs and Paul Rust? It dropped on Netflix slightly over a month ago, so for all intents and purposes, it’s in the rearview mirror. You should be ready with all your opinions now!

And hey, remember “Orange Is the New Black”? With no new episodes since June, or until … well, June. It’s hard to recall its existence sometimes, then June circles around and everyone races to watch every episode before spoilers permeate every media space known to civilization.

In between these frantic, orgiastic weekends in bed with our laptops and a perpetual “Next episode playing in…” countdown clock, we don’t stop binging. “Seinfeld”: Now on Hulu! “Gilmore Girls”: Now on Netflix! “Felicity”: Now on Hulu! “Friends”: Now on Netflix! “Arrested Development,” “West Wing,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Dexter,” “Supernatural,” “How to Get Away With Murder” -- entire seasons of shows long-departed fill the Netflix rolls and tempt us to watch, or rewatch, just one episode, then two, then every single season.

In her sharp review of “Love,” Slate’s Willa Paskin pointed out that binge-watching has a positive ring that it hasn’t quite earned: “The idea that binging is something one does when a show is good, and not just something one does when a show is good enough, is the foundation upon which Netflix has built its heady reputation. But most binge-watchers know from experience that the available is as easy to devour as the excellent.”

Paskin’s point, ultimately, is that plowing through a show can cover up its flaws, drawing you in more by the sheer inexorability of “Next episode playing in…” than by the interest generated by its quality. “Love,” for example, she nails as being under-edited -- episodes range from under 30 minutes to over 40, and many scenes feel gratuitous or, at the very least, way too long -- under-motivated, and no more than OK as a show. But while Paskin argues that binge-watching doesn’t discriminate between the good and the bad, I’d argue that it does: it just privileges the bad.

“We consume fresh bread and stale chips, good wine and flat soda, great television and time-passing junk,” she writes. “But the analogy between television and comestibles breaks down the more we imbibe: the more middling television one guzzles, the better it tastes, not worse.”

Interesting, but let’s really break this down: Personally, I subsist largely on mac ‘n’ cheese and frozen pizza, which I’m capable of eating in enormous quantities if allowed. I hear caviar and foie gras aren’t typically served in vats, but in daintier portions that promise just the right amount of satisfaction. People tend to eat larger amounts of junk food because it’s designed to entice us but not satisfy us; it’s salty and fatty, but lacking in the nutrients we need, and in the distinct flavors that tell us we've had enough. It’s the really good food, with quality ingredients, nutrient-dense choices, and gourmet preparation, that demands only a few bites. (That, or Michelin-starred chefs are making really elaborate excuses for those teeny tiny servings.)

TV, it turns out, follows a similar curve. There’s a reason why a "Hoarders" marathon appeals far more than one new episode, but the opposite holds true for "Mad Men." One episode of such a content-free show, like one potato chip, melts away like a salty nothing; you need a whole bag to feel satiated. One episode of a show rich with enigmatic characters, thought-provoking dialogue, subtle symbolism or even sly humor -- that’s like letting a handmade chocolate truffle melt on your tongue. You could have another, but you don’t need it.

When it comes to the shows we binge, Netflix has, as Paskin notes, given itself a leg up by prodding us to consume shows all at once, then, once we've watched enough to enjoy at least some of it, decide how to judge it. A bad pilot, a bad first few episodes, needn't cripple a show if viewers simply drowse through them. And they're giving us a lot to assess: Netflix’s originals are in full swing this spring. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” will be back in April, joined by Ashton Kutcher vehicle “The Ranch.”  The new “House of Cards” kicked off this month, and Will Arnett’s new dark, drifting comedy “Flaked” arrived on March 11, a healthy 8 episodes of aimless viewing.

So, is “House of Cards” a great show, a show that would be particularly notable if it aired weekly? What about “Love,” or “Flaked”? Not likely. Good shows that drop all at once, like “Master of None,” almost seem shortchanged by how quickly they vanish from cultural chatter. There’s no “Did you see this week’s episode?” -- at best, it’s “Remember that episode when?” a mere month or two after the show's premiere. In the new era of watercooler chat, nothing and everything is timely and relevant.

Meanwhile, nearly every TV show that’s ever existed is available to dedicated streamers now, and yet we’re ending up with revivals of “Gilmore Girls” and “Full House.” No doubt plenty of TV buffs spend hours sprawled out on the couch with “The Sopranos,” “Fargo,” "Girls" and “Mad Men,” but is prestige television really what we associate with binge-watching? We’d wait eagerly all week for a new episode, but do we yearn to veg out in front of Walter White slowly compromising every aspect of himself until he’s become a meth-making monster?

Mea culpa, but I just breezed through "Felicity," then "Ally McBeal" (I know, I know), and now am proceeding at a steady clip through "Gilmore Girls," even though nearly every aspect of the show irritates me profoundly. If I stumble across a marathon of any version of “Say Yes to the Dress,” I’ll leave it on for hours. Binging doesn’t just equalize the best and the middling, it elevates the mediocre above the great. Great makes you work. Great makes you feel. It’s tiring, and can be uncomfortable.

I haven’t watched an episode of “Peep Show,” a wonderful, dark, unsettling British sitcom, since I overdosed on it during a binge session several years ago and found myself overcome with a sort of emotional nausea. The world of the show was too easy to fall into, and too provocative, with its cynical humor, for me to expose myself to it for so many hours. Just looking at it on Hulu makes my stomach turn now. A similar thing happened with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” Now, with favorites like "You're the Worst" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," I ration myself. Lesson learned.

This problem will never arise with “The Great British Bake-Off,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Friends,” or even “Love,” though it has a thread of the same emotional gross-out humor as “Peep Show” at its heart. They’re calculatedly bland, one-note, all within a comfortable mental range and emotional register that allows us to drift through them without being unduly shocked, jolted, wounded, provoked, or even inspired to think. Audiences needn’t question what the hell is really going on, what characters’ true motivations are, or how someone could laugh at such a grotesque joke. They’re just basic, predictable stories, unspooling with just enough dull urgency to prevent us from clicking “Back to Browse” before the next episode starts.

A really, really good show, of course, might compel binging. When you first discover “Arrested Development,” or “Peep Show,” or “Breaking Bad,” the compulsion surely will arise. But there’s something else, too. When you’ve got something that good, you might not want to blow it all at once. You might want to pause after an episode or two and let what you’ve seen percolate through you a bit. You might want to pleasantly anticipate getting to watch more later. And you might start to feel like it’s all a bit too much to take in all at once.

As of now, the rising binge-watching addiction of the public is being sustained by the flood of old TV shows appearing on streaming services, but that is a finite well. Can Netflix, Hulu, and the networks ramp up their production of potato-chip TV to a high enough level to keep pace with our enormous appetite for constant, low-level stimulation? And what would that mean for the apparent surge of prestige television? Though many have been treating prestige TV and binge-watching as synergistic, they may well turn out to be fundamentally opposed. Aziz Ansari, whose Netflix series “Master of None” came out last November, has said that he’s not in a hurry to produce the second season because he wants it to measure up to the first. (The series was picked up for a second season, set for 2017.)

Making really great TV can’t be rushed the way consuming TV can, but we sure can churn out a whole lot of aimless, boring crap in the meantime.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.

Follow Claire Fallon on Twitter: @ClaireEFallon



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