Eventually Your Eyes Go Square: On Binge-Watching and Shame

It would be of no surprise to anybody if I said that binge-watching has become a byword for the way current generations watch (more importantly interact) with TV. The word itself is so ubiquitous it appeared in no less an eminence than the OED’s 2013 word of the year list (last year Collins went one further and crowned it word of the year, but I’m an OED man).

Interact because, as you might have noticed, DVD, Internet, Netflix and other streamable and downloadable TV providers have exponentially increased access to TV whose appeal used to be once-weekly routine viewing. Meaning that families and communities used to put regular, once-weekly time aside to sit and watch. Nostalgia-prone elders will tell you that watching used to be an organised family event for which all other activity stopped. This is both hyperbole and, to a degree, true. Now of course we don’t have to wait; we can watch and imbibe indefinitely and endlessly so long as we don’t have jobs to go to or lives to go live or even just the willpower to stop watching. It turns out we don’t have all that much willpower.

Real-time, instant access to TV has come hand-in-hand with real-time, instant access to Internet and social media. You don’t need to think about this too much to understand how much our viewing habits have changed from the once-weekly, Internet-less routine of old. Now we don’t have to dedicate a set time to sit and watch, meaning we’re not getting the weekly dose all at the same time. Even if those programmes are still based largely on once-weekly viewing (talking here predominantly about Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, around which single episodes have become international events), most viewers today don’t watch in real-time. Most people record TV or catch up using online services or catch TV repeats or buy DVD boxsets — there’s too much of this stuff to even think about keeping up-to-date. For streaming services, real-time barely even applies anyway. Most of the TV that comprises binge-watching is now streamed instantly online — Netflix, with TV like House of Cards, has lead the way by making whole seasons of its own productions instantly available — meaning that we as TV viewers get more choice about when to sit and watch. But because the TV that comprises binge-watching is predicated on exactly the same hooks that once-weekly, routine viewing used to comprise (meaning it’s predicated on cliffhangers you need to keep coming back and watching to see resolved), there’s increased incentive and pressure not just to keep watching but to watch quickly. To not be left behind. To not miss out. To be part of the conversation. To not have friends or family or journalists or people on Twitter spoil whatever cliffhanger we’re trying to see resolved.

We’re watching a lot of TV.

No surprise that there’s a dark flip-side to all this TV watching. While we’re striving to keep up and keep watching, to not flounder or get left behind, we’re horribly aware of one truth that’s been hammered into us by experts and adults since we were children: too much TV is bad for us. Really bad. Children of my generation remember serious adults telling us we’d get square eyes if we watched too much TV. It’s not clear if the adults were serious about square eyes or just serious; either way, we inchoate children were no less obsessed with TV but were now equally obsessed with the shape of our eyes. We were told that TV would corrupt us, that it was frivolous, that it would atrophy not just our limbs but our minds, our very souls. There were — and remain to be — serious concerns that the amount of TV we consumed had direct correlations with drops in IQ, that TV literally eroded brain cells and reduced attention spans and would turn us into drooling idiots. (Having said that, if you don’t want to irreparably spoil your TV watching, don’t ever watch the rapt, slack-jawed attention with which your average person watches TV — it really is like watching a body emptied of all affect.) Today the lessons are no different, they’ve just been re-configured and re-packaged. We’re no longer — thank God — talking about square eyes, but we are still talking about what TV does to us physically, mentally, morally. Suffice to say that research in favour of watching more TV is elusive and sketchy and dubious and of the more-TV-makes-you-more-sociably-happy variety (and seems to be almost universally commisioned by Netflix — go figure).

All of this was bad enough when we were children, but now we’re adults, and the lessons of childhood are difficult to slough off. But because we’re adults we get to choose what we do with our time. There’s no bigger adult to tell us to turn off the TV, to make us go do other more productive stuff. But there are other adults and experts who still wag fingers and shake heads and tell us that we shouldn’t be watching so much, that all this TV can literally kill us. And yet, as reasonably free adults with limited amounts of spare time and a reasonable sense of just how precious that spare time is, we’re choosing to watch more TV.

It’s perhaps inevitable then that your average viewer, when (if) he stops to think about it, feels ashamed of watching so much TV and ashamed of his social need to watch TV. Ashamed too to discover he’s not as independently-minded as he wants to believe himself (because we all like to think that we’re independently-minded). And so it’s fair to say that if the average viewer is ashamed of his TV-watching habits he’s likely to be allergic to terms like ‘herd mentality’ and ‘sheep’ and in general abhors the idea of faceless, unthinking masses (and how else do groups of bingeing TV viewers appear to him?). And yet one of the things driving him to watch so much TV is acceptance by the same faceless, unthinking mass he’s ashamed to be accepted by. He wants to be part of the cultural conversation that’s happening in newspapers and magazines and of course on TV itself. God knows the average viewer can’t get away from the adverts and the billboards that convince him the great mass of binge-watchers is out there having an awful lot of inclusive fun he really ought to be involved with:

(You can’t help but admire the ingenuity of Sky’s adverts; they’re actually creating the culture they claim to be commenting on. Let’s not even consider the irony inherent in the idea that there’s an inclusive club of binge-watchers: most of the TV watching taking place in the world is done alone. By all reports it’s making us lonelier.)

It’s no surprise that in recent years articles like this one and this one have started to appear. They’re evidence that today’s viewers are not just ashamed of their TV viewing habits but are becoming very aware that they’re ashamed

But then I start to consider the commitment and it becomes overwhelming. What will happen to my summer? Will I ever see the outdoors? How will I have time to watch them and read all the thinkpieces and argue about it on my social network of choice?

If at this point you feel that talk of shame is hyperbolic, I ask you to bear in mind that binge-watching is not just a byword for the way we watch and interact with TV but a synonym for a particular type of TV. I feel confident saying that most people who binge-watch and who are aware of themselves as binge-watchers are selective in the things they watch. I feel confident saying that the average binge-watcher is not bingeing on Coronation Street or X-Factor or Keeping Up With the Kardashians (if you happen to watch the aforementioned programmes it’s doubtful that you feel much shame about your TV-watching habits, which means that this article is unlikely to make a whole lot of sense to you). For emphasis I repeat that binge-watching is not just a synonym for watching huge amounts of TV but a synonym for watching huge amounts of a type of TV. You don’t need to delve too deeply to find out that the TV which comprises binge-watching most often comes attached to terms like ‘serious’ and ‘challenging’ and ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’, and it undoubtedly has production values to rival cinematic production values (think here of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, TV’s really big hitters). And consider too that it’s surely no surprise that much of binge-watch TV’s recent output has been derived from film: Minority ReportFargoBates MotelHannibalScreamFrom Dusk ‘Til Dawn, ad infinitum. In recent years it’s true that comedies like Orange is the New Black and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt have broken through, but these have been isolated occurrences and/or meet with limited success. Ditto superhero tie-ins like Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Gotham, Daredevil and The Flash, which have enjoyed relative success but not wider support because their aims are too transparently elitist for rigidly mainstream audiences.

Really, binge-watch TV makes its serious money from TV that looks and feels like cinema. Given that your average binge-watcher has experts warning him and adult fingers wagging in his face, this should not be a surprise. TV that feels like cinema does not by definition feel like TV. Since TV is the thing the average viewer has been warned against watching, it makes sense that the viewer will be unconsciously drawn to things that don’t remind him he’s watching TV. This is why reality TV, which it’s infinitely possible to binge-watch, is not considered binge-watch material to your average, discerning viewer. The average viewer will instead be drawn to things that make him feel his limited spare time is being used productively, and drawn to things that challenge and stimulate his intellect and force him to think more deeply than TV’s supposed to make him think. Besides, nobody’s complaining that people watch too much thought-provoking cinema.

House of Cards Screenshot
House of Cards: A productive use of your limited spare time?

What’s clear is that your average binge-watcher really does feel like he needs to justify his unhealthy binge-watching habits. So if he’s watching TV that’s been re-codified and is ‘cinematic’ and ‘dark’ and ‘challenging’ he’s not watching TV that erodes brain cells and loosens jaws and turns viewers into drooling idiots. It’s sophisticated. It’s high art. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

You can decide for yourself if binge-watch TV really is all that sophisticated or if it’s all bluster and hype. I’ll mention only in passing that cinematic production values and Hollywood actors like Kevin Spacey and Mads Mikkelsen are not cheap, and that TV’s business model is the same business model TV’s always relied on (meaning it makes money through advertising). It doesn’t take a whole lot of mental effort to work out that potential investors and advertisers are not likely to throw money at something unless they’re 100% assured — at the very least — of re-couping the initial investment. It is, yes, possible at this point to shout “HBO!”, which is a valid point; but it’s worth remembering that HBO (which, let’s not forget, is a subsidiary of Time Warner) and other subscription companies like Netflix still need massive amounts of investment, and that major investments still need the guarantee of massive audiences.

The result is that much of binge-watch TV’s biggest developments and innovations are aesthetic. High production values aside, what binge-watch TV has done most successfully is pushed back the boundaries of on-screen violence and sexual content to frankly absurd and shocking levels; some binge-watch TV really is physically hard to watch. You have to wonder why. You have to wonder, for example, if the effort TV producers put into shocking their audiences is at the expense of something that TV companies with advertising revenue to attract would rather your average discerning viewer didn’t think about. Consider that it’s surely no coincidence that TV’s two biggest exports (Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead) work through shock and distraction: they distract audiences from the soap opera melodrama that underpins them with ever-growing levels of violence and gore. It’s no surprise that, at the time of writing, the cultural conversation surrounding both is, respectively, the identity of Negan’s victim in The Walking Dead and the corporeal status of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. In past years it was the corporeal status of Glen and the rape of Sansa Stark. In other words, audiences are talking about which character has just died/is going to die next/has just had something unspeakably horrible happen to him or her.

(If this all seems unlikely, I’d urge you to go back and reconsider that what made The Walking Dead’s second season such a chore to watch was not just its lack of zombie-death-action but how the lack of zombies forced audiences to come face-to-face with soap opera melodrama and archetypal characters.)

Of course all the violence and shocking events make great copy for newspapers and magazines and websites. Videos of people reacting to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding made the front pages of national newspapers and were major items on national news channels (and let’s not forget that Game of Thrones’ UK distributor is Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB, or that Murdoch owns several national newspapers and the Sky News channel). It’s not at all clear how much all the violence and sex have pushed TV into darker, more sophisticated territory and how much they’re proxies for those same qualities. All that can be said with any certainty is that much of binge-watch TV’s appeal is shock-appeal, and too often shock serves nothing but itself. Just consider the distance between Ned Stark’s beheading and Sansa Stark’s rape as poignant evidence of how far Game of Thrones has devolved into shock for shock’s sake.

If you’re anything like this average viewer, you probably find the politics of binge-watching deeply complex and stressful. Deep down you probably only really want an excuse to watch TV without being made to feel guilty. It’s no wonder then that many people defiantly refuse to watch. It’s tempting after all to denounce binge-watch TV’s illusion of social inclusion and community fun as just so much unnecessary peer pressure (pressure that we, as adults, are supposed to be above). This is fine, of course — until you start to wonder why these particularly defiant non-viewers seem so adamant for you to know they’re not watching. There’s something inherently suspicious about the level of defiance and the confrontational tone: why, for example, are they making such a thing of not watching and instead just not watching? Consider a headline like “I can’t stand to binge watch television shows. I know what you think of me,” which is suspicious not just because it asserts that you — the average binge-watcher — has pre-emptively judged the writer for her lack of binge-watching credentials but because she pre-emptively re-asserts the thing those Sky adverts have been telling us: we’re all part of a global community of unthinking, jaw-loosened binge-watchers. Just think Invasion of the Body Snatchers to get some idea of what your rabidly defiant non-viewer thinks of your average viewer:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers Final Scene.jpg

And consider, from the same article, that sentences like these

My friends assume that my inability to binge-watch means that I don’t like brilliant shows or, worse, that I don’t like television at all. I am berated for not taking the time to consume pieces of our collective history; I am told of the countless series that have shaped our media landscape, the ur-texts considered necessary for understanding anything currently being produced.

are frankly weird. What do they assert? That the writer’s friends are literally unable to comprehend the writer’s inability to binge-watch? That the idea of not binge-watching is alien to people already under TV’s thrall? Frankly, you have to wonder about the company the writer’s keeping.

It appears to me that what’s really happening here is the writer’s bought into a culture that doesn’t really exist, and having bought into that culture she’s pre-emptively elected not to take part. You have to consider also that the friends this particular writer is talking about are suspiciously caricatured; if they exist then they too have bought into the culture (or, most likely, are nowhere near as rabidly obsessed with TV as the writer’s trying to assert — you get to wondering what the friends in question made of the article when they read it). And so your rabid anti-binger consciously side-steps the cultural conversation — while she keeps one eye on it — and avoids the supposedly inclusive fun that’s not really fun at all — while she keeps one eye on it. Unlike the global mass of binge-watchers, your defiant anti-binger has the restraint to remain individual, with a full set of brain cells and a rigidly structured jaw. Restraint because, as the writer is at pains to point out, she tries to binge-watch, she just can’t do it. She enjoys TV, just not the way you enjoy it.

(By the way, berated?!)

You are of course free to decide for yourself. You are, after all, an adult; and despite expert warnings that too much TV is bad for you (which warnings are, unfortunately for the binge-watcher, likely to be true), you’re able to at least make up your own mind about it. If it’s any consolation, you can be assured that no matter how much TV you watch, your eyes at least will not go square.


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