The Austin Chronicle

Why I Binge Watch Bad TV

By James Renovitch, September 6, 2012, 10:00am, Picture in Picture

As I write this I’m watching an episode of the ABC fantasy-drama Once Upon a Time on Blu-ray. I never watched Lost, I have no affinity for fairy tales, none of the actors or characters really appeal to me. So why am I watching?

After a few episodes I knew this show would be neither great nor terrible. It would be fine. But with the vast array of great television and movies out there, why would I waste my time with something mediocre? This will be the question I ask myself repeatedly as I watch episode after episode until I’ve finished the season.

This isn’t just true of Once Upon a Time. Allow me a short list of series which I have watched from beginning to end (roughly ranked from least to most embarrassing): Friday Night Lights, Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, How I Met Your Mother, Angel, Gossip Girl, 90210 (the new one), Teen Wolf (the new one), Army Wives, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, and One Tree Hill.

That’s right, I’ve watched eight seasons of One Tree Hill. One hundred seventy-four episodes (all that was available to me via Netflix streaming). I remember that time in my life as a dark period. So, again, why would I watch? What would compel me to adhere to such a depraved viewing regimen? When asked that by concerned friends I would respond that I “had to finish,” as if one more season of Army Wives was the home stretch in a marathon: painful but ultimately worth it. Army Wives spoiler alert: It’s not worth it.

Most people don’t consume TV this way, at least not adults. I know this, but once I start a show, I can’t stop. This is also why I don’t watch shows currently airing. A week or more between episodes is long enough to snap me out of my stupor. Netflix’s streaming service cunningly only requires a solitary button press upon the completion of one episode to start the next. Even Hulu Plus, with its limited commercial interruptions, has little appeal to me even if the more current shows help me keep up with water cooler conversation. For me, it’s no commercials, no summerlong cliffhangers, just nonstop entertainment at all costs. That cost apparently being my dignity.

This does not excuse the fact that I start watching these shows in the first place. I readily admit that melodrama appeals to me on a very basic level, and I’m not one to deny myself guilty pleasures (Katy Perry’s appeal is another blog altogether). Once I get started, what might have been a guilty pleasure becomes something approximating an addiction. More disturbing is the fact that I don’t watch “good TV” the same way. I enjoyed The Wire like any intelligent human but didn’t devour it like a CW drama. Time in front of the tube (yes I still have a tube TV) for me is largely synonymous with lowered brain activity. That is unless you’re considering the other tasks I’m doing while watching these tawdry teen dramas. For example, right now, I’m on to another episode of Once Upon a Time and yet I still type away. Perhaps my writing would be better if I turned off the … nah. I’ll walk away from Gossip Girl without pausing the show, pay a few bills in my bedroom, walk back out, and not feel like I missed anything.

I submit to you that the hours – ugh, days – spent watching these shows are not entirely wasted. I’m also socially networking, playing games on my phone, reading up on current events, and being a somewhat productive internet surfer. This is how I spend my down time. Watching an episode of The Wire is not relaxing, it’s art that engages the mind. 90210, on the other hand, turns brain cells to mush or at least frees them up for other seated endeavors that only require a fraction of my attention.

The diagnosis? Binge watching of the basest kind. The remedy? The most obvious would be to cancel my Netflix subscription. It’s not going to happen though. Ask anyone that knows me and they will tell you I have few vices. This is my nicotine and until there are noticeably negative effects on my brain or body I’m going to let another episode of Once Upon a Time wash over me. If things get bad I’ll expect to see you all at my intervention.

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