My college student daughter is on season three of Breaking Bad. Sometimes, late at night, we hear her moving around downstairs---studying, working on her laundry, perhaps, but always with her laptop at her side and Walter White on her mind. My youngest daughter is working her way through One Tree Hill; I’m hopeful that she’ll be bored before the end of season one. Over last year’s Christmas vacation, I started my love affair with Downton Abbey. It was late afternoon on Christmas Day. Worn down from the grind of the semester and with Christmas behind me, I settled in for a long winter’s nap on the sofa---compliments of Netflix and our newly-acquired Wii. After thirteen and a half hours of viewing time and several lengthy naps, I emerged from the fog. It was December 27, dirty dishes and chip bags were piled around the sofa, and I had somehow lost two days. I sat up, surveyed the living room, and did what any thinking person would do: I found something else to watch. Daniel Deronda, Wives and Daughters, North and South, Bleak House, Wuthering Heights---four more days passed and it was New Year’s Eve.
Binge-viewing. It has a name and lots of people (61% according to a recent Netflix poll) are doing it these days. Perhaps it is a product of our busy and chaotic lives. In an era when families can hardly make time to eat dinner together at night, sitting down every Thursday at 8:00 to watch The Waltons seems ludicrous. We have to catch up when we can! And there are physiological reasons why TV binges appeal to us. We long for the resolution of the narrative. Exciting and interesting questions arise about the impact of binge-viewing on the way television shows will be made. And there is a great case for thinking that this shift is similar to the move from the serialized Victorian novel to the more pithy twentieth century model. I’m in! Binge-viewing is the binge for me.
I keep a calendar. Mainly I use it as a diary to record ordinary days---lunch with my daughters, a walk with my friend Susan, a high school choir concert, an appointment with the dentist. My calendar is blank for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
So I wonder about binge-viewing. Is it harmless? Or does it compromise the ability to live a disciplined and orderly life? How will we set acceptable limits on TV when Netflix makes it possible to always know what happens next? Wendell Berry observes that “we must have limits or we will cease to exist as humans; perhaps we will cease to exist, period…in this world limits are not only inescapable but indispensable.”