The TV Binge: Watch at Your Own Risk

by Erin Whitney

"Orange Is the New Black"Retrospectively I can chunk the last year of my life into TV binge phases. “Law and Order: SVU,” my go-to streaming show, remains at the core with other series like “Parks and Rec” or “Portlandia” highlighting summer or fall seasons. It even seems that I more easily remember these periods of my year mainly by what shows I was watching, by what I was spending the majority of my free time consuming.

“Portlandia” and “Parks & Rec” both shaped my 2012 streaming summer, the latter of which bled into the fall. My winter was equally divided between “Downton Abbey” and “American Horror Story,” a suitable pair to balance excessive streaming of the other — a cup of English Breakfast always soothes supernatural nightmares. However this past summer was my true initiation into my binge-watching addiction, instigated by the recently most binge-watched show ever, “Orange Is the New Black.”

When “Orange” debuted on Netflix in late June it was one of the few new series of the summertime hiatus and the only series where the entire first season premiered in full to stream. As many other critics have proclaimed, the first few episodes were semi-engaging, but nothing quite as addictive as the show turned out to be. Then after three days and many hours of sleep lost, I found myself starved for more lesbian prison drama. I had never watched an entire season start to finish, or any show until 2 a.m. for three consecutive days. This marked a new era of binge-watching and everyone was hooked.

When the first season of “Orange” was over I didn’t know what to do with myself so I transitioned my new binge habit to one of the many shows I’d never had the time to start before. Thus, my “Breaking Bad” addiction commenced. During the month of July watching the series became my usual evening/weekends routine, going from episode to episode as easily as Walt cooked one meth batch to the next, becoming addicted to a show that increasing became about addiction.

Sure, it can be said that TV binge watching devalues the quality of individual episodes. We absorb less when we watch four or five in one day and the suspense and anticipation that is characteristic of modern drama TV is eliminated. We probably even appreciate episodes less since it becomes harder to remember and cherish specific elements when we’re infiltrated by them at fast paces.

Yet this kind of speed watching is exactly what we want, to overdose on our favorite shows without having the previously mandatory patience from one weekly episode to the next. Our current expectations of immediate entertainment mean we want everything at once and at our fingertips. And once something runs out and we’re forced to be patient? As “Orange” revealed, we will be. Most people finished the first season in under a week, but didn’t know what to do next. Then the Internet blew up over the show for the remainder of the summer with bloggers continuing to dissect each and every angle of it.

So maybe then binge watching doesn’t mark a loss in quality or appreciation. This controlled type of binging, where we only get small doses at a time, floods us, but then squeezes us dry so that we have to return to re-watch and re-inspect what we may have missed. Just as we were only given one season of “Orange” at a time, we were also painfully teased with an 11 month intermission in the final season of “Breaking Bad.” Sure we can binge-watch the series all at once leading up to the premiere of fifth season’s second half, but then we’re still forced to watch the end of Walter White’s story in the traditional weekly episode manner. Of course once the full series is added to Netflix the case will be different, but there is nevertheless a game of push and pull here with networks serving us an unlimited buffet just to hold back the desert a little longer.

The modern age of television watching has become one big tease, and now unlike ever before it’s up to us how much we want to indulge in. We can cook one batch, space out our episode viewing, and walk away from the sooner-to-be addiction. Or we can take over the meth business, watch every available “Breaking Bad” episode as fast as possible, then sweat out the finale an episode at a time. Pick your TV poison.

A version of this article was originally featured on on September 27, 2013.