Summer is here and I am not on contract. Between exhausting bouts of research and even more exhausting bouts of socializing for the first time since last summer, I have been binging. One evening each weekend, some friends and I have been watching four, sometimes five, hours of Game of Thrones. After I walk home at midnight, I dream of sword fights, beautiful dresses, or maiden friends French-braiding my hair in gardens of trumpet vines. One night, I even woke to my boyfriend singing the soundtrack in his sleep: la-la la laa.
Powerfully creeped out, I laid awake thinking about how our Bacchanalian viewing is affecting us.
Binge watching—the practice of watching two or more hours of a television show in rapid succession—is a relatively new form of binging, made possible by digital recording or streaming. Netflix encourages it, as the next episode starts automatically, sometimes even before the credits have finished rolling for episode you just saw. This new way of “consuming” TV is changing us, it’s changing the way television stories are told and the way audiences interact with stories.
There’s a theory—you’ve probably heard it in politics—that TV has long-term effects on society, that it can influence our beliefs and change our cultural cores. According to “cultivation theory,” it has the power to alter our understandings of right and wrong, as well as change our perceptions of racial or ethnic differences. I have even heard that Will and Grace taught the government that gay men were regular people. But the Will and Grace effect was a byproduct of the “network era” of TV, when ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC still ruled the tube and everyone had the same selection of sitcoms to choose from.
Most of those shows were episodic, meaning that the audience could enter the story at any episode to know what was going on. You didn’t have to watch the whole season to understand the characters’ motivations because these motivations were reactionary and simplistic. Episodic shows were great in syndication—because there was no overarching storyline, the episodes could be played in any order.
There were soap operas, too, with one extensive, unbroken plot. The same characters stayed in the same place, working through the same melodramatic relationships. Even though they’re continuous, the soap plot often moves so slowly you can pick it up a year later and still have an idea of what’s happening. TV serials such as the X-Files combined the two, “monster of the week” episodes mixed with an long-arc storyline of government conspiracy.
Now, without any time passing between the air dates of episodes, the made-for-Netflix shows can capitalize off of much more complicated storylines. The audience remembers what happened in the last episode, or four episodes ago, because they just finished it, and they can follow more minor characters through plot twists and character arcs. There is no need for flashbacks. Cliffhangers can end each episode, just as they conclude each chapter of a Vonnegut book. Finish the chapter and you must turn the page; you must click to watch the next episode. The TV serial is becoming much more like novel.
Game of Thrones, while it isn’t made for Netflix, is great for binge watching because there is no main character. I remember hearing so many complaints when the presumed main character was decapitated, because it was such a jarring, blunt way to cue the audience into the fact that this plot would follow a host of major and minor characters.
According to a student from the University of Oregon television studies program, whom I had the pleasure of listening to at popular culture conference, people have always watched TV for a number of reasons: to engage with complex storylines, relax, pass time, and to enjoy particular aesthetics.
Hedonism is another reason. He didn’t mean the sheer adrenaline rush of seeing something explicitly sexual or terrifyingly violent, but the hedonism that comes with binging. To brag that you have seen a show in its entirety, over the course of a weekend, is little different than bragging that you polished off a case of Coors Summer Brew in one afternoon. And yet, that’s what an estimated 7.5 million people did when they watched the entire fourth season of Arrested Development within a week of Netflix’s release. By 2017, Netflix hopes to tap into our hedonistic urges by airing a new show every two weeks.
Companionship, another notable reason people watch TV, has also changed. Known as “parasocial interactions,” these one-sided relationships toy with the brain in bizarre ways. They are context-bound to their medium, one-sided, controlled by the character, creating an illusion of a relationship, but strangely satisfying. The character acts how we expect him or her to act, creating an emotional consistency like a good friend. While adolescent girls model life choices after characters, boys fantasize about hanging out with sports heroes. What’s more, the less we sleep as we stay awake all night binging, to more cognitive disconnect between the fictional world and real life disappears.
I recently heard a girl talking about a parasocial breakup she’d had when she finished watching some TV show. The seasons were over, her character friends and crushes gone. She became as depressed as if she had just gone through a real breakup, laying in bed and eating chocolate ice cream while mourning her loss.
Are our brains ready for binge storytelling?
I’m not quite sure, but I have a sword fight waiting and some men to drink wine with, and I better get going.