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Binge, Interrupted

One more episode for the road—or not

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IT WILL ROT YOUR BRAIN The movie marathon is now something darker and more insidious: the binge-watch.
  • IT WILL ROT YOUR BRAIN The movie marathon is now something darker and more insidious: the binge-watch.

I recently joined the ranks of binge-watch America, via Netflix, and, like any good consumer-citizen, I kicked off my binge of binges with a marathon run through Breaking Bad.

When it was over, five seasons later, I was a puddle of sloth in the easy chair, left only to wonder, "What is wrong with me?" What's wrong is that we're a nation of bingers, and I'm an idiot.

These days, the titans of mass culture are quite happy to custom-tailor content to us, caught up, as we often are, in identity arbiters that involve pointless TV shows. Binge-watching has a price and a context in a culture that's gone beyond "on demand" to just sitting there, drooling, as the next episode fires up. Binge-watching is the manifestation of an accepted mass-delusion of ownership around cultural product —"my show"—and the ease of delivery to your screen.

Who owns it, and who goes to work tomorrow all bleary-eyed and post-binge heroic, yammering about "my shows" around the water cooler? Everyone!

A binge requires a purge, and by the time I got to that last scene in Breaking Bad, where Walter White dies smiling in the place he loves (a meth lab), I was ready to puke.

Viewed in the aftermath of a bingeing frenzy, Breaking Bad reveals itself to be very, very bad for you. There's no redemption, just lots of ruined lives on White's way to a kind of debased salvation. He's not an antihero; he's a scumbag, and taken in all at once, Breaking Bad is an overwhelmingly depressing commentary on the virtue of selfishness. Just like meth itself, binge-watching Breaking Bad will age you prematurely.

Even worse is a binge-watch of House of Cards. The show features Kevin Spacey as the president of the United States (and, it appears, McCauley Culkin as the First Lady), and people seem to dig it. Why? The sets are cheap, the plotlines ridiculous, and the bad faith in government is so raw you'd swear it was satire. Give it another episode, and you'll just swear at yourself for looking for something beyond the abject amorality.

House of Cards requires a binge-antidote to all that murderous bad faith. And I used to like The West Wing, until I made the mistake of binge-watching it after binge-watching House of Cards, as a kind of counter-binge gesture. In the parlance of narcotics anonymous, I'm a binge-watch garbage-head.

But I couldn't make it through three episodes of The West Wing. Martin Sheen, as President Jed Bartlet, offers nuggets of down-home doofiness that prove to be digestible only in 30-minute blocks of time. That's what made The West Wing enjoyable as a network show: you only had to listen to Sheen once a week.

I like "my shows" to actually go somewhere, to build to a finale that's worthy of the binge-investment, which is where Friday Night Lights comes in, one of the most dangerous binge-watch temptations on the Netflix.

Dangerous because nostalgia is a powerful anti-motivator. And when it's nostalgia about high school football and I never made it off of the junior varsity practice squad but I can watch the lovable antihero Tim Riggins kick ass on Friday Night Lights—and take me all the way to the Texas state championship?

Put me in, coach, I'm ready to binge. And I just rewatched the pilot. Uh-oh.

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