To binge = to indulge for a short period of time in an activity to excess, especially drinking alcohol and eating.
Not a very pleasant or healthy notion. My question is, if we add “watching TV” to that equation, does that elevate the concept of binging? Probably not, but it’s an important thing to ask, for binging is the way a lot of people watch TV these days, and I have joined the pack.
Online services like Netflix and Amazon Prime encourage us to binge when they drop an entire series, fully formed, into our laps rather than doling it out in weekly increments. When you watch something on Hulu or Netflix, you barely have time to catch your breath as the computer loads up the next episode, yet I make a conscious effort to watch only one or two episodes a day to “make it last.” This has leaked over to my regular TV watching, as I tend to store the shows I DVR in order to watch them in batches rather than once a week.
For me, the pluses of binging outweigh the minuses. First of all, the shows I tend to like involve complex continuing storylines and character development. Watching an entire season’s worth of story in shorter spurts tends to make the experience feel more complete. You also have more control of what you watch when you watch it. Since there is nothing on TV worth seeing on Monday nights, why not kick back with two or three episodes of something you care about. (Or you can always read . . . yeah, right!) And since I’m a teacher on summer vacation, I have the freedom, should I wish, of devoting a day to watching an entire series. Not that I would ever dream of wasting my life like that . . .
An added plus is that I actually have found that binging has helped me to reduce the amount of television I watch. This summer, I recorded several series that I thought I wanted to watch, only to realize after one or two episodes that the effort did not yield the required pleasures. And so I erased them. Bye-bye, Outlander. I’ll miss all the hot sex but not the turgid political drama, which tended to get in the way of the hot sex. So long, Season Three of Silicon Valley. Suddenly, you just weren’t funny enough for me to give you my time.
The minus of binging is that when you’re done, you’re done, and you have to wait an entire year for another dose. Well, that’s the short term minus; the bigger deal is that now you’re no better than those dratted kids you complain about with their constant demand for instant gratification!
Mind you, I don’t binge everything I watch. Game of Thrones has to be viewed as close to in the moment as possible because you need to discuss it at length with the rest of your slackjawed friends the next day! Which brings up the other minus of binging: those people who refuse to watch a show until it’s all stored up and then get vicious when you want to discuss the Red Wedding or the Bastards’ War or Arya’s Revenge in their presence. I had a Facebook friend who un-friended me, not because I discussed plot details but because my statements like “How about that amazing episode last night?” gave too much of the emotional impact of a show away for her. Binging is destroying another favorite pastime, the Water Cooler Moments. Discuss that amongst yourselves.
As I contemplated my first annual Binge Awards, I had to admit that this was a pretty grim summer in terms of quality entertainment, but I managed to come up with my top six Binging Experiences. This is a highly personal list, so it won’t include all of your favorites. I also want to say that, as we speak, I am recording the HBO mini-series The Night Of . . . which I hear is fabulous and which might have ended up on this list had I timed things better. Here we go . . .
Number Six . . .
Dark Shadows (YouTube)
This is a very personal choice. When I was a kid, I would rush from middle and high school over to a department store at the local mall in order to watch Dark Shadows. (This 12-year-old would pretend to shop for TV sets, which fooled nobody.) My viewing the first time around was choppy due to time restraints. I watched it again in college and remember laughing a lot. This year, I got the yen to view it from the perspective of full adulthood, and when I found that most of the episodes are currently available on YouTube, I decided to go for it.
For those of you who are in the dark about Dark Shadows, it took the world by storm for five years in the late 60’ –early 70’s. The first year presents a Gothic world revolving around the Collins family who live at their family mansion Collinwood in Collinsport, Maine. The first year concerns the new governess, Victoria Winters, who arrives seeking the truth about her birth. She gets involved in murder and intrigue and ill-fated romance, which sounds like fun except that this was when soap operas moved veeeerrrryyy sllloooowwwwwlllyyyy. Suffice it to say, the show struggled to the point of near collapse when its creator, Dan Curtis, had a brainstorm: since the show flirted continuously with the idea of the supernatural lurking in the background, why not go whole hog and introduce the real thing? He stepped into those waters gradually, first with ghost sightings and then with a storyline involving a woman who had married a Collins and run away, only to return to claim her child. Turns out she was a living embodiment of a Phoenix, and all she wanted was to burn herself and her son up so that they could live forever. It worked pretty well, so Curtis turned up the heat and introduced Barnabas Collins, a vampire. And Dark Shadows never looked back from there. It featured werewolves and witches, take-offs on classic tales like Frankenstein and The Turn of the Screw. The actors were a sort of repertory company, played a wide range of Collins relations, depending on the time period in which the show took place during any given story.
Truth to tell, the great joy of watching this series is to see how bad it really could be. Some of the storylines were terrific, the main set was one of the best on TV at the time, and many of the early attempts at special effects were pretty cool. Most of the time, however, the cheese factor was ever-present, and the beleaguered actors often dropped their lines or worked hard not to crack up. Still, there’s something about being a Dark Shadows fan that stays with you forever, and I find myself waxing nostalgic for the days when my friend Marilyn Singer and I would discuss the plot details of this show ad nauseum. I was also helped this time along by a wonderful website by a writer named Danny Horn called Dark Shadows Every Day. Danny has taken on the project of watching and writing about one episode every day, as well as about the various adjunct DS paraphernalia (comic books, novelizations, films, audio stories), and a look at how DS fit into a wildly changing America. His commentary is often hysterically funny and just as often insightful. If you have time to spare for 1200+ half hour episodes, I highly advise checking out Danny’s blog to ease you on your journey. For those of you who are not interested in watching Dark Shadows, I congratulate you on having a life.
Veep (Season Five – HBO)
If you had asked this American voter to describe Veep two years ago, I would have called it a totally bonkers satire of the U.S. political system. Who could have imagined how much it resembles today’s reality? The only thing different between the re-election woes of V.P. turned interim President Selina Meyers (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, brilliant) and the attempt by Donald Trump to convince somebody – anybody – that he would make a viable Commander-in-Chief, is that when we laugh at Selina, we don’t feel an accompanying undercurrent of horror. I do think that Veep, which is painfully hilarious this season, could be an effective tool for the Clinton campaign to illustrate what might happen should a sociopath become our leader. Although, let’s be fair: if the run was between Selina Meyer and Donald Trump, I would vote for Selina in a heartbeat. Louis-Dreyfuss surrounds herself with a marvelous ensemble of actors playing every sort of damaged soul you could imagine. (Special shout-out to Tony Hale as Selina’s adoring personal assistant.) If you haven’t watched this one, start at the top. You can binge it on HBO Go.
House of Cards (Season Four -Netflix)
I think the British understand certain things about television that we don’t in America, like when to get off the train. The British House of Cards did not last four seasons, and that was one of its strengths. And the third season of the U.S. version went off the rails by trying to humanize Frank and Claire Underwood, the central figures in this twisted satire of political intrigue. (Think Veep with that undercurrent of horror I mentioned above.)
But this latest season gets many things back on track, largely due to the focus on Claire, played to perfection by Robin Wright. Claire has the gall to say to her husband, “Maybe I don’t want to be Lady Macbeth anyore,” and when Frank balks at her personal ambition, the stage is set for a whole new web of intrigue that will lay the foundation for Season Five (which, folks, really should be the last season.)
Stranger Things (Season One – Netflix)
This new show is being pushed as a nostalgic throwback to all those 80’s Spielberg movies that put the science fiction genre firmly in the hands of children (and children at heart): E.T., the Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Goonies. And yes, it is set in the 80’s and all the tropes are there: a group of nerdy middle school heroes, clueless but loving parents, bullying kids and government agents, helpful but clueless teachers and sheriffs, and a mysterious laboratory encased in barbed wire which is conducting experiments in something that threatens the very fabric of our existence.
Except there’s also a healthy touch of Alien and other darker matters to appeal to us grown-ups who like our nostalgia served dry, with a twist. And we also get to find out what happened to Winona Ryder, so that’s a bonus. Thus, the tone of the show veers from the childlike wonder and angst that Spielberg could capture so well to some nice scary suspense scenes involving the kids and the Big Bad.
Stranger Things opens with double escape from the aforementioned spooky lab. One of the escapees is Something Terrible, the true origin and nature of which is explored throughout the season. The other escapee is a little girl known only as Eleven who, at the start, is clearly traumatized by a lifetime of experimentation. How and why she got there and what she knows and can do form the most satisfying part of this mystery.
The show isn’t perfect. It’s derivative qualities tend to leak out of the seams. But it is a fast-paced and entertaining show, with characters you start to root for. Certain parts of the story seem to play out to a nice finish, but there are enough questions left at the end to segue nicely into Season Two. I’ll be there for the ride.
UnReal (Season One on Hulu/Season Two on Lifetime)
I resisted this show about the production of a “Bachelor”-type reality series for the longest time. I don’t like dating shows (or most reality series) because the manipulative and downright fictional aspects of them are always apparent. However, UnReal is so over-the-top crazy that I highly recommend it over the real thing.
One of the biggest pluses of this show is that most of the characters are female, and UnReal shows that women can be just as strong and as rotten as men, perhaps more so. The show centers on the two women who produce “Everlasting,” the show within a show: Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) is the executive producer, and she actually conceived the show only to have her lover Chet Wilton (Craig Bierko) steal the credit. Quinn is out and out psycho in her attempt to make the worst of human nature play out on the show. Her staff manipulates all the girls competing to marry a gorgeous bachelor into humiliating, life-altering stunts. There is literally no limits to what Quinn and her staff will do for ratings.
But the show really evolves around Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a seriously damaged young woman who struggles (a little bit) with her conscience as she leads the contestants into dangerous emotional waters. One moment you’re rooting for Rachel and the next you hate her, which just about sums up how you feel about every character in this series. I tend to root for Jay (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), the black, gay producer, who seems to have a soul a little more of the time than anyone else. This makes him the default good guy on a show that doesn’t have any good guys.
It’s odd to find this series on Lifetime, for it is real shock theatre, delivering a gut-wrenching twist every five minutes. (Without revealing spoilers, does it help to say that one woman’s on-air suicide is not the most devastating thing to happen to a contestant?) Frankly, I don’t see how the series can sustain this, and I have to admit that Season One felt stronger to me than Season Two. I also could argue that, of all the shows on this list, UnReal might be the one to benefit from not binging. You might want to take a little break along the way from so much nastiness. But it is a darkly funny, beautifully acted satire of reality television.
And now we come to . . .
Orange Is the New Black (Season Four – Netflix)
OITNB is based on the true story of Piper Chapman, a white woman of privilege who finds herself serving a prison sentence for a ten-year old crime of transporting drugs for a girlfriend (who snitched on her to reduce her own sentence). The first season centers on Piper’s incarceration at the Litchfield minimum-security prison and her very difficult transition into life as a prisoner. As the show progressed through Season Two, more and more it expanded to include the stories of Piper’s fellow inmates, each one a fascinating case study, and each one played by a brilliant actress. Here’s another series that veers wildly in tone, from bleakly funny to downright tragic. More than any other series on this list, OITNB is the one I really have to resist binging all at once.
To be honest, things bogged down a bit during Season Three, and I had to ask myself if creator Jenji Kohan had what it takes to sustain the series much longer, especially seeing how far afoul she fell making Weeds. But Season Four is honestly maybe the best one yet, where Piper takes her place as just another inmate’s story and where other characters come into their own with a vengeance. This is the show where a relatively minor character from before like Lori Petty’s Lolly or Kimiko Glenn’s Brook can take center stage and run with it, where you never get inured to the dangers facing every woman in that prison because a moment of triumph or tenderness can turn into tragedy in a split second. The ending of this season packs one of the strongest emotional punches I’ve experienced in recent viewing memory, and it sets the stage for great drama in Season Five.
I tried to resist watching more than one episode a day with this one, but by the end, I had a Saturday four hour binge and found myself standing in front of my laptop shouting, “Oh, no, you didn’t! You couldn’t!” But they could, and they did, and now I have to wait a whole year for new adventures at Litchfield. And to find out what’s inside that little boy in Stranger Things. And to see whether Quinn and Rachel will destroy or save each other in UnReal.
And you know what? Waiting is a very hard thing to do . . .