I recently attended a lecture by a distinguished man of letters. A poet, novelist, playwright and literary critic, this man also edits journals, directs literary festivals, collaborates on documentary projects, teaches full time at a university and is raising a family. When an audience member asked how he managed to find the time for all these things, he said, “Everything I do is in the interests of making time for my true passion: watching TV.”
He was addicted, he said, to"Damages"and"Downton Abbey."He claimed to have watched all five seasons of"The Wire"in a single weekend. “I can’t get enough TV,” he said. “It’s all I want to do.”
There may have been some self-deprecating hyperbole at work (is it physically, mentally or even temporally possible to watch all 60 episodes of “The Wire” in a single, two-day weekend?), but from where I sat — in an auditorium, hoping that my home DVR was recording"Mad Men"and that my husband wasn’t “cheating” and watching it without me — it all sounded refreshingly candid. We are in an oft-noted “new golden age of television.” Since the late 1990s, when HBO debuted “The Sopranos"and other cable channels followed with their own original programming, the device once known as the idiot box has become markedly less idiotic.
Sure, “Jersey Shore"and various public stockades that masquerade as talent shows still crowd the airwaves. But challenging story arcs, complex characters and discernible quality can also get a ton of TV traction these days, which is only highlighted by the way we watch television. No longer at the mercy of whatever happens to be on (or of VHS machines no one could figure out how to program), we can press a button and save a show, order a full season on Netflix, stream it on our phones or download it episode by episode whenever, wherever. We can, in other words, give TV our undivided attention on our own terms.
And that means we can binge watch. Parodied to hilarious effect on"Portlandia,"where a couple forgo eating, sleeping and hygiene and eventually incur job loss because they can’t turn away from"Battlestar Galactica,"marathon TV was considered largely harmless until last week. That’s when Jim Pagels, an intern at Slate magazine, attacked “pandemic” binge watching and asserted that cliffhangers “need time to breathe” and that watching one episode right after the other would “ruin the whole batch.”
The outburst was timed to Sunday’s season premiere of “Breaking Bad,"which fans tend to inhale with the same desperate frenzy displayed by the meth junkies the show often features (I suspect I would inject the show intravenously if I could). It didn’t go over well. Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal and NPR took Pagels to task. Bob Garfield of “On the Media” brought him in for a mild tongue-lashing and pronounced his own 33-hour “Breaking Bad” binge “one the greatest cultural experiences of my life.” Garfield reminded his guest that Dickens’ “Great Expectations” was originally presented in serial form but no one questions the purity of reading it cover to cover today.
Pagels, it should be said, thoroughly argued his case (complete with bullet points). But then so did Garfield — big gulps or weekly sips, each has its benefits and drawbacks. We all know that. So why, other than his slightly sanctimonious tone, did Pagels touch such a nerve?
Because binge watching is code for something else entirely. It’s a way to distinguish highbrow from lowbrow.
You rarely hear someone brag about watching 16 straight episodes of “Melrose Place.” Binges are for the stuff that gets recapped on culture blogs, that finds its way into academic papers with names like “‘24,’ ‘Lost,'and ‘Six Feet Under': Post-Traumatic Television in the Post9/11 Era” (yes, that’s an actual dissertation).
Marathon TV also takes effort. It distinguishes its practitioners (at least in their own minds) from the casual, passive viewer and turns TV watching into an act of agency, like reading a Russian novel or running an actual marathon. As a result, it turns something that was once a source of shame — prolonged couch potato-dom — into not just a badge of honor but membership in a club.
And one to which even a man of letters will admit paying his dues. Speaking of that, I’m taking next week off. I’ve got a 53-hour appointment with"Big Love.”