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February 20, 2014

Why binge-watching old shows is more fun than binge-watching new ones

It's been four days, more than 100 hours, and I still haven't finished Season 2 of "House of Cards."

I've gotten past the big Episode 1 spoiler. And I've made it through a few more predictably "shocking" chapters. But I haven't finished. And it's not because I think binge-watching is bad - I don't buy any of those arguments. I've binged on many shows in the past year alone. "Six Feet Under" I completed in a month this summer. I devoured all three seasons of "Borgen" in the final weeks of 2013, and I relished every minute. I started watching TV in earnest in college, so if a show ran before 2006, chances are I binged on it while putting off a paper on Kant or possibly an assignment for Slate. "Veronica Mars"? Binged that during finals freshman year. then again in anticipation of the movie.

But Netflix has tarnished binge-watching's good name.

Much has been written about the joys of binge-watching. Slate's TV critic, Willa Paskin, described it as "the classy way of watching too much TV, the rebranding of a previously disdained activity that makes the sedentary life palatable to those people - say New York Review of Books readers! - who would once have foresworn it." Less than 24 hours before Season 2 of "House of Cards," Alex Soojung-Kim Pang wrote in Slate in praise of the practice, calling it "restorative," and highlighting how "it's a way [for people] to reclaim their time and attention in a rushing, distracting world." He goes on to explain that for many, it's a reward.

Binging on "Six Feet Under," "Borgen," "Veronica Mars" - those shows felt like rewards, little presents I got to open whenever I felt like it. They offered a way to relax, and yes, reclaim my time. After all, I was on my own time. I'm sure others were binging on "Borgen" at the same moment, but we were not trying to keep pace with each other - no one was dictating a time period for us to finish so we could then chat about it. The show had run its course, and people who came well before us wrote the think pieces that we could now happily devour. There was no race to finish because no one cared when we finished. No one cared when we started.

And then there's "House of Cards." In many ways I can't stop watching "House of Cards." But binge-watching "House of Cards" the weekend it comes out does not feel like a relaxing reward. It has nothing to do with reclaiming time and everything to do with time being dictated to you.

Sure, in theory, you can watch whenever you want. But if you're on Twitter, you're surrounded by people tweeting spoilers and bragging about finishing. Magazines and blogs publish pieces that will only make sense if you've "caught up." What was once the most enjoyable way to consume seasons of TV becomes a social obligation.

No one has explored this as well as "Portlandia" (also streaming on Netflix, if you want to binge). Think of the sketch in which a man and woman start watching "Battlestar Galactica" before going to a party, only to get sucked in so deep they abandon all sanity, calling in sick to work, forgetting to pay for electricity, chanting "next one, next one."* This sort of behavior is crazy - but it's a fun, personal sort of crazy. Now think of that other "Portlandia" sketch, in which friends sit down for coffee, but instead of discussing what they've read, they try to one-up each other by asking if the other has read as much as they have, until they're literally eating the pages of a magazine. The Netflix push to "watch it now" makes TV feel like a race, one that I have no interest in running.

 

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