Binge watching, that great American pastime, can also be good medicine


Just as Scout Finch once realized that she never loved reading until she feared she would lose it, I didn’t understand the importance of television until my child was too ill to watch it.

The continual complaint about television’s negative impact on our health recently erupted into full blown clamor when a study published in the Journal of American Medicine seemed to indicate that too much television could shorten a person’s life. But there are times when binge watching is not just excusable, it’s restorative.

Last year, when my 15-year-old son learned he would spend his summer recovering from spinal surgery, the first thing we did was surrender to his request for a big screen in his room. As soon as he was out of anesthesia, he said, he planned to watch “Game of Thrones” again, from start to finish. It was almost as big a payoff as a straight back. How often does a kid get to watch as much television as he wants?


Danny got his straight back, but he spent almost a week in the hospital, either in debilitating pain or drugged up to his eyeballs. Even after we brought him home, days went by without a sign of my lighthearted, joke-cracking son. He slept a lot and only spoke when he needed something — to be turned over, to use the bathroom, to fix the pillows against his back. He didn’t want to eat, had to be forced to drink, was not happy about having to stand and sit, and had no interest in seeing any of the friends and relatives who wanted to visit.

The flat screen just sat there, black and vacant, while we tried not to panic, to believe the doctor when he said it was all normal, Danny was doing fine, it would just take time. Then one day, about three weeks in, Danny opened his eyes and asked: “So when are we going to start watching ‘Game of Thrones’?”

I have written often and long on the glories of modern television, but never have I been so appreciative of them as I was last summer. On a schedule dictated more by pain and medication than the traditional daily rhythms, Danny watched television round the clock. “Game of Thrones,” “Falling Skies,” “Ripper Street,” “Breaking Bad,” “Burn Notice” — series after series kept him company and gave him something to think about during those long days when too much conversation tired him, when he couldn’t hold a book or sit comfortably enough to play a video game.

His room became the TV room, with friends and family circulating in and out to catch an hour or two of whatever he was watching. My husband, long dismissive of any story that featured dragons, became a “Game of Thrones” addict. And while I cannot claim to enjoy “Supernatural” with the same dedication that Danny feels, I do now appreciate how many dang episodes of it exist.

In the olden days, when Netflix still dealt solely in DVDs, most of us only binge watched when we were sick.

I remember devouring seasons of “Sex and the City” years ago after a surgical recovery myself. Movies are fine, but they end in two hours and then they’re gone. When you’re sick or weak or simply confined, you need consistency. You want a universe in which you can truly immerse yourself, people you can count on to be there, hour after hour after hour.

And not just to pass the time. Months later, when Danny was on his feet and back at school, the real blow fell: His doctor told him that though he could return to all of his regular activities, tackle football was out. Forever. A defensive lineman on the freshman team when he was diagnosed, Danny had dreamed of playing varsity football for years. While all the adults around us offered words of relief — now we wouldn’t have to worry about concussions! — we watched our son droop once again, contorted now by something even more difficult to fix than a curved spine.

He grew silent once more, withdrawn; his school work suffered and he didn’t care, he returned to his room and his flat screen. There he started watching “Friday Night Lights.” Only this time, he didn’t want any of us to watch with him; whenever one of us sat down next to him, he would pause the show and wait for us to leave.

Treading water in the doorway, trying to think of yet another way to ask him if he was all right, I worried for the first time about what he was watching and why. The hideously violent story of a chemistry teacher turned drug-dealing killer? Fine. But I was concerned that Jason Katims’ finely drawn story of a small-town football team would exacerbate his sense of loss, would remind him of what he could no longer do and the fragility of even a simple dream.

Instead, those hours spent in Dillon, Texas, seemed to make him stronger. Eventually, he let us watch with him; eventually, he started talking about the show, its characters and the actors.

And eventually he spoke of his own pain and frustration, how lost he felt without a team and the sport he loved, without the hours spent practicing and playing to give his day, and his identity, a tangible form. But his voice rang with a passing tense, as if he were describing a place he was leaving even as he left it, the wreckage still visible in the rearview window, but growing smaller with every passing mile.

We watch television for many reasons, in many different ways, not all of them healthy. Certainly it can be a sedentary activity, especially when combined with mindless eating. In a society where most bodies are already at rest more than they are in motion, it’s easy to target television, especially given the American belief that too much of a good thing is never quite enough.

But television, especially nowadays, is an art form, and there are times we need to lose ourselves in art. To open ourselves wide to the thoughts and emotions of others, to see different sides of the human story unfurl slowly before us.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are among the most important things we create, and sometimes it takes a while for them to sink in.