The difference between joy and relief in the modern TV landscape

Savoring is the new binging.

Well, it would be if I were Emperor Of Pop Culture. But since that position doesn’t exist, and since I probably wouldn’t have the savvy or martial forces to capture such a title, bingewatching is the predominant way many people currently consume television. It’s a little strange to step back and think about how seismic “House Of Cards” was during its first season, and here we are two scant years later with bingewatching part of the “normal” way people watch shows. From catching up with past seasons or simply consuming a Netflix/Hulu series in a single sitting, bingewatching is here to stay.

But as with all trends, it’s useful to think about why we do it. The idea is certainly potent, but the execution feels increasingly off. This isn’t me speaking as a credit feeling left behind, but as a television viewer off on my own cultural island. To be fair, I’m a pretty introverted person, so I theoretically SHOULD enjoy this isolation. But just as smartphones turned society into individuals that barely acknowledge people two feet away, bingewatching and the destabilization of airtimes means that we get to watch whatever we want whenever we want, with the only downside being able to talk about whatever we want with whomever we want.

To be sure, this is a problem of the fragmented nature of “normal” programming, in which dozens of stations now are produced good-to-great shows that deploy on a weekly basis. (I’ve now added Lifetime to the mix thanks to “Unreal,” which is really, really, really good and I’m actively angry at both the show and the network for jumping into the fray. I had written you off, Lifetime!) I’m behind on more things than I care to share, but I can deal with that as a function of lifestyle and sheer priorities. What I can’t deal with as well is waking up on a Friday and realizing someone’s already watched “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” a show that wasn’t available to watch when I went to bed.

It’s the immediacy, coupled with the endurance, which throws me off about this. I could stand on a soapbox and proclaim that I have the willpower to only watch one episode of “Orange Is The New Black” a day. But I also really only have the time and inclination to watch one. Part of it certainly has to do with wanting to live with these characters and the choices they make over a longer period of time. But I also don’t really want to do ANYTHING for six hours at a time, even if it’s watching a really great TV program. “Orange” takes a lot out of me (in a good way!), and so watching one a day makes sense to me on multiple levels.

The idea of both critics and audiences watching all thirteen at the expense of actually doing anything else irks me as well, and yes, this sounds about as much as “get off my lawn” as I can get, but hear me out. I don’t think we should expect or reward those that spend ridiculous amount of hours writing up something that, quite frankly, doesn’t deserve the effort. That’s no slight against those that do it. That’s a slight against the subject matter. Increasingly, the way to stand out is to put forth some sort of Herculean effort that gets at best a few hours worth of social media buzz and some decent hits. The idea of ranking every episode of a show that produced more than a hundred is designed simply to spark clickbait outrage. That’s annoying, but mostly I feel really bad for the poor person that had to watch all of those episodes and then write something about all of them. That’s bingewatching journalism, and it’s a symptom of a larger problem that Netflix has tapped into which is deeply embedded into American culture: Anything that can be done in moderation would be better if done to excess.

Much like that oversized plate of nachos, not all TV has to be consumed simply because it’s there. (That’s how seriously I take this: I’m bringing nachos into the equation to stress the nature of the situation.) Just because you CAN watch every episode of “Orange” in less than 24 hours isn’t an argument for actually doing it, especially as Netflix starts rolling out an increasing number of shows that beg your immediate and complete attention. Just because you CAN authoritatively rank every “Game Of Thrones” character that’s ever appeared onscreen from “pretty terrible to Tyrion” doesn’t mean you should. Both establish scenarios in which the sheer amount of work it takes to reach completion outweighs any sense of fun one could have. And in theory, all of this should be at least kinda fun. (See? I want you off my lawn, but so you can have fun. I’m nice, even as my midlife crisis settles in like a thick fog.)

In terms of making content standout, whether TV or writing about TV, the tendency to go big is rewarded. But there’s so much of both that little of it sticks anymore. Netflix has released roughly a dozen new series this calendar year, including children shows, and I defy any of you to name half of them off the top of your heads. That’s on top of the returning shows. The fervor that surrounded the premiere of “House Of Cards” has been diluted as people become accustomed to this new way of watching TV. It’s already old and already kind of boring. “Oh, a new season of TV ready for me to watch in totality? Must be Friday.” The half-life on these trends is growing increasingly short, and people’s ability to keep up with programs and discuss them with others (another thing all but eliminated when no one is on the same schedule) will soon end completely. At that point, much in the way that hipsters fetishize phonographs, consumers might start gravitating back towards weekly schedules as the “real” way to watch.

In the end, savoring isn’t about willpower so much as it is about establishing boundaries to truly enjoy television. It seems silly to argue that someone who loves a show so much he/she watches it for thirteen hours straight isn’t enjoying it. But I believe in my heart of hearts that all the plot connections one can make that way is at the expense of where TV’s true power truly lines: In long periods of time spent with characters. Yes, a show like “Lost” has the same length of content when viewed over six years as six weeks. But that six years was important, both in terms of those that loved and those that ended up loathing it. For better and worse, that time spent apart from that show mattered. The same goes for any show like that. Shows become a part of you: They seep in, sometimes without you realizing it, and all of a sudden you’re very DNA feels changed. I’m not saying that CAN’T happen when bingewatching. But the process by which it happens is fundamentally different, and therefore can’t possibly affect the viewer in the same way.

Now, if you didn’t watch “Lost” originally, that experience is more or less lost forever. Same with every show that you didn’t watch during its initial run, even if it wasn’t your fault. (Like, maybe you’re reading this twenty years in the future, and you weren’t even born when Oceanic 815 crashed. Totes sorry.) The Netflix model allows freedom, but it doesn’t encourage space. Thirteen episodes over thirteen days is still something of a rush compared with, say, an FX drama that would unfold over three months. But it’s still something. It allows me the time to think about what I’ve watched, even if it’s just for a little while after the episode ends. I was absolutely haunted by the appearance of a certain comic strip in the premiere, and I wanted to hold onto that emotion. Simply letting Netflix queue up the next episode would have ruin that moment, and ruined my experience. And while it might have felt good to have finished the third season by the time this post goes live, I can’t imagine there isn’t at least some hollow feeling now that’s crept in the immediate aftermath. I’d argue that feeling wasn’t “joy” but rather “relief”. They feel the same in the moment, but look much differently in hindsight.

Me? I want some joy back. So I’m savoring what I can.