The Perils of Binge-Watching

Binge-watching our favorite television shows can be a glorious and relaxing way to spend a day, or a weekend, or even a weekend and then a fake sick day. However, a stint like this in loafer’s paradise is usually followed by a sleepless and miserable work week. And like any other form of gluttony, when everything you desire is sitting right in front of you for the taking, it can be almost impossible to resist.

In many ways, shows like “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” have given us everything we’ve ever hoped for. Who among us has not sat through an hour of riveting television only to be left dangling on a tension filled cliffhanger, saying to ourselves, “I would give anything to see what happens in the very next scene!”

Now, thanks to this revolutionary new way of delivering television (releasing entire seasons at once instead of installing serialized episodes weekly), we have that power. It’s easy to forget that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and only a handful of us have the fortitude not to abuse our newfound entertainment privileges.

Conventional wisdom has always dictated that staying sedentary for hours at a time in front of the television–stopping just long enough to stuff ourselves with our favorite take-out option–is far from the healthiest personal choice. Still, it turns out that there are more consequences, physical and otherwise, than we might expect.

Beyond the obvious risks associated with lack of exercise, binge-watching has been known to increase feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression, even when experienced in the company of others. In fact, binge-watching could be considered a mild form of addiction. While we may not develop a physical dependency on knowing the outcome of our favorite show, there is certainly something to be said for how difficult it can be to break the momentum of a great storyline and simply walk away from it.

In some ways it’s similar to the way that a few seemingly innocent beers can lead an alcoholic into a stupefying, all-out bender. And just like any other addiction, it can consume us to the point of self-destruction.

“Breaking Bad,” for instance, is consistently listed among the most addictive television shows, with much of its audience freely admitting that they weren’t even fans until the final season–which prompted them to binge-watch the entire series leading up to the finale. Research shows that, with a show like “Breaking Bad,” viewers can tend to over-identify between their own world and that of the show.

This doesn’t mean that viewers will feel an inclination to start cooking crystal meth and taking on major drug kingpins in their spare time. Instead, viewers tend to be effected by the color, mood and atmosphere of the shows they watch. Which, as critics have noted, are some of the major storytelling components of a show like “Breaking Bad.” Many who watch the show for hours on end come away feeling bleak, depressed, and mischievous. Likewise, a show like “House of Cards,” intentionally designed to encourage binge-watching, might leave the viewer feeling particularly Machiavellian and manipulative.

This also carries over into interpersonal relationships. While you might expect that binge-watching your favorite TV show is a great way to spend some quiet alone time with your significant other, A 2012 study published in “Mass Communications and Society” revealed that couples who spent too much time watching television had a tendency to project what they were seeing into their own lives.

In the case of a romantic story’s arc, this sets up unrealistic and naive expectations for what a romantic relationship ought to be, and ultimately proves detrimental to that dynamic.

It also has consequences for the storytelling of the show, as not all shows are intended to be viewed in such a fashion. A show like “House of Cards,” for example, understands that its audience will likely watch several episodes at a time, if not an entire season in one sitting.

Other shows, particularly those which came before the dawn of the internet, actually suffer from this type of experience.  Instead of experiencing deliberately paced weekly installments with carefully constructed cool down periods after climactic episodes, viewers might be doing themselves a disservice by powering through a great television show in one sitting, or even over a couple of days. Jim Pagels of lays out the reasoning for this outlook extraordinarily well in his 2012 article, “Stop Binge Watching TV.”

While television addiction might not be as socially taboo as, say, heroin, it certainly is a legitimate form of self-abuse worth paying closer attention to. Of course, that might be easier said than done, as the quality of television currently being served up is essentially “Grade A” Bolivian marching powder.

How are we supposed to stay clean when we’ve got Academy Award winning actors starring in our favorite television shows, under the direction of world class auteurs like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese? It just isn’t fair. Hopefully, we can simply remind ourselves that everything is OK in moderation, and it simply requires an element of self-control and discipline in order to be enjoyed responsibly.

Feature photo courtesy of Banalities from Creative Commons Flickr.