In one episode of the FX drama series, Prison Break, the character, Sara, a physician, sits in a fold-up chair at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Sara is a doctor with access to opiates, which she mainlines. As I watch Sara introduce herself in that 12-step program, reciting that standard salutation, a parallel line comes to me: Hello. My name is Maureen, and I’m an addict. That night, beginning at 8:00 p.m., I watched nine episodes in a row of Prison Break. I’d promised myself I’d watch only three episodes and go to bed at the reasonable hour of 11:00 p.m. Next thing I know, a gray pre-dawn light blanched my windows as I sat on my couch, remote control in my grubby hand, unable to turn off the Netflix stream. The next day I had a TV hangover. All day I felt exhausted, foggy-headed, a little sick, horrified at the time I wasted.
Netflix defines “binge-watching” as viewing two to three episodes in a single sitting. Two or three episodes? Child’s play. When I received an email that season five of Sons of Anarchy was available, I didn’t watch it right away because I knew that if I started, I’d stay up until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. I had to plan binges for when I could drop out of life, semester breaks, summers, weekends. I’m like a highly-functioning alcoholic, or a closet-eater….
Addiction, perhaps, is too strong a term…. But research supports the idea of television as addicting. First, the screen captures our attention. We are compelled to look, to respond to new stimuli because of our “orienting reflex,” an atavistic function hard-wired in our brains to protect us from predators. Is that lion on the savannah going to eat me (or am I just watching Nature?). Recently in the waiting area of an auto-repair shop, I tried to read but found it impossible with a television blaring Dr. Phil. I kept glancing at the guest who’d accused her “baby daddy” of molesting their child, which turned out to be a revenge plot. I know the ending because I finally gave up trying to read and let Dr. Phil have his way with me.
Once we are sucked in by the TV, the “pleasure circuits” of our brain light up. Dopamine neurons fire rapidly, driving us to seek more doses of the “electronic cocaine,” says Dr. Peter Whybrow of UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, pitting the brain’s pleasure center against its control center, like a World Wrestling Federation match-up in which the pleasure center is Hulk Hogan and the control center is a high-school welter-weight in a unitard. “Staying focused on the future is challenging when immediate gratification becomes the coin of the realm,” Whybrow writes; we develop a habit, which over time can “rewire our neural architecture” to reinforce short-term rewards. The more we watch, the more we will watch, the more we can’t help but watch. “In our culture of immediacy,” says Whybrow, “we have overtaxed our brain’s internal braking system.” It becomes difficult to just say no….
I tell myself I’m watching the shows to study dramatic structure. What tricks of story-telling keep me riveted? Like legions of writers, I have ideas for screenplays and so I watch to study the architecture of story. That’s how I justify clicking on a third, a fourth, a fifth episode. A compelling story, according to my instructor in a screenplay class, features a character with powerful need (not a desire, but a desperate need), who faces obstacle after obstacle trying to satisfy that need. There should be a false resolution, maybe two, then the actual resolution, or climax, followed by the denouement, tying up details.
If I were writing a television script based on my life now, my need would be for stimulation, for meaningful human contact, a relief from the solitude of writing each day, from living alone. The obstacles are self-imposed (woman v. self)—I grow more reclusive as I get older, selective about with whom I spend time. Other obstacles are external (woman v. world)—in my rural town in Maine, there is nothing to do at night except sit in a bar. There aren’t even interesting adult education classes. (I half-considered taking welding.) I live on an island connected by a road to another island connected to the mainland. You have to cross five bridges to get to my house, like some obstacle course. Weather is an obstacle (woman v. nature). Winter in Maine is peak binge- watching season; the sun sets at 4:10 p.m., the temperature drops to single digits, and it snows and snows. I’m trapped in the house for days. Without the human voices on television, I worry I’ll morph into Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, a crazed glint in my eye as I robotically type all work and no play makes Maureen a dull girl….
Even TV characters binge-watch TV. “In a hilarious turn, Alicia [The Good Wife] becomes addicted to a cable drama,” Nussbaum writes. Is it “hilarious” to see Alicia in front of the TV “with glazed, binge-watching eyes”? In a pathetic meta-meta-narrative, I binge-watched Alicia on The Good Wife binge-watching, which makes me feel somehow lost in the bowels of a giant television…. The headline to a satirical story in The Onion reads: “Netflix Sends Message to Check if Area Man Okay After Watching Entire Season of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ in Single Sitting.”
I am Area Woman.
Why do I binge-watch? Am I bored with myself, my life? Not every minute of the day can be filled with scintillating conversation, drama, pleasure, but clearly I would not seek “parasocial” experiences if there was not some deficit. Is a deficit in one part of my life causing this excess in another? …
A more recent study found that people watch more television in times of “ontological insecurity.” When I dwell in TV land, I feel the loss of my own narrative, a belief that my life matters, or that I can have an impact on the world, that what I do is important or worthwhile. I’m not a high-powered lawyer, a brilliant doctor, a super-human spy, a cunning political operative, a criminal mastermind, or an intuitive case-solving detective. I’m an ordinary, middle-of-the-road person, one who feels somewhat ontologically insecure.
If ontology delves into the nature of existing, of being, and if cogito ergo sum—I think therefore I am—does the syllogism follow as such: I watch TV (not thinking), therefore I am not? When my father was ill and after he died, I couldn’t focus, couldn’t read, couldn’t do anything that required concentration, so I binge-watched television. I did this, too, when my boyfriend, Steve, was dying of cancer in the late-1980s, when I was twenty-seven. Especially in the last six months of Steve’s illness, I rented videos for us to watch, one after another after another. Often I’d realize twenty minutes into the show that I’d already seen it, but had immediately forgotten it, my brain an Etch-a-Sketch. Bingeing on movies was a way to fill my mind with something other than the surreal tragedy of watching a man I loved morph from a healthy, strong being into a gaunt, helpless, skeletal form, finally a corpse. I watched life and vitality flow out of Steve daily for a year and half, a steady seepage from the day his back pain was discovered to be tumors until his last ragged breath. Watching videos, for a while, allowed me to look away from daily episodes of death in real life. But why do I binge-watch now? What don’t I want to see?
One day while reading about Diana Nyad, who after four failed attempts, swam from Cuba to Florida at aged 64, I realized that bingeing is not the problem. What if I were a binge-swimmer, a binge-gardener, or even a binge-writer? I used to be a binge-reader. I could stay inside all day long reading a book, lost in a world evoked by brilliant writing, curled on the couch for hours. I was so enraptured with the world (re)created by Nadezdah Mandelstam, wife of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, in her memoir, Hope Against Hope, that I read nearly the whole book in a day. No one ever said binge-reading was pathological.
The problem, I think, is not my reclusiveness or my antisocial bent, not even loneliness or boredom. The problem is much more banal and calls to mind a trait that my mother railed against when I was a child: laziness….
I see now that in the screenplay of my life, binge-watching is a false resolution, that parasocial relationships with TV characters are simulacrum. No parasocial hero is going to ride in (on a parasocial horse) to rescue me, to make my life more interesting, more meaningful. In my life, I am antagonist and protagonist both. I am the writer, I am the director. In this art of living, it’s up to each of us to fill the canvas of our days, to make of one’s life a masterpiece.