A few years back, I was stricken with the stomach flu and sequestered from my family, friends, and colleagues. It was hunkered down in this solitary misery that I had my first taste of streaming television. In less than a week, I emerged from my bedroom having polished off three seasons of Mad Men, a series that follows the misadventures of a part-time 1960s-era sex-addicted ad executive with the moral temperament of Caligula and the personality of a cucumber. And since watching it, I too have been held hostage by addiction.
Soon enough, I went on a bender and watched 75 episodes of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica — a space opera about an exodus to New Earth. I binged on Breaking Bad (twice) and The Sopranos more times than I care to admit. On a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Brazil, I skipped out on an invite to a party at Copacabana beach with a group of fascinating people in order to finish off the final season of The Wire in my cheerless hotel room.
I’ve been to Deadwood and I feel like I’ve lived with the Walking Dead. Let me put it this way: The two concise seasons of House of Cards are nothing more than a digital amuse-bouche for someone with my insatiable appetite. And when my supply of fresh serial dramas began drying up, I manned up and began devouring the languorous British soap opera Downton Abbey, which then sparked an entire BBC-watching spree that saw me march through series about a Welsh murder in Hinterland, an English murder in Broadchurch, Irish murders in The Fall, a bunch of amateurish murders in Father Brown, and the entire murderous reign of a Birmingham crime syndicate circa 1918 in Peaky Blinders. I watched classics like Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Actually, I’ve immersed myself in decades of British culture in a mere few months. Nothing could stop me from watching. Not even Rowan Atkinson. I only thank the gods of television that there was no stream of The Benny Hill Show within the reach of my addiction-addled remote-control finger.
My rationalization for this obsession pivoted on a vague notion that I was not only being entertained but engaging in a cultural connection that might help me better understand the world around me. This was art, right? Art matters. Well, that theory began to fray somewhat when I found myself slogging through the saccharine of Parenthood or the infuriating silliness of Lost. It was during one particular low point, when I contemplated binge-watching Gilmore Girls — the story of a scrappy teen, her sassy single mom, and their new life in a mythical Connecticut town — that I realized I might be wrestling with an affliction beyond my control. I’d hit rock bottom. No one in a healthy mental state could possibly find Connecticut compelling for seven seasons. Of this, I was certain.
Perhaps it was even worse than I imagined. A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin claims that my binge-watching — which is most often defined as viewing between two and six episodes of the same TV show in a single sitting — means that I’ve succumbed to something called “extreme-viewing behavior.” This is a disorder tied to something else called “self-regulation deficiency,” which is the biggest predictor of binge-watching behavior. This means I have an inability to resist my desire to watch show after show because not watching might trigger feelings of guilt in me — something comparable to the guilt a responsible adult may experience when missing church or not going to the gym. Apparently, my affliction is also associated with loneliness and depression (which, admittedly, I do feel whenever a good series comes to an end). This can oftentimes lead to physical fatigue and problems like obesity and heart disease.
Potentially worse, researchers suggest that when binge-watching becomes rampant in our lives, we will soon begin neglecting our children, our spouses, and our friends. Fortunately, I’ve not yet detected any such problems. As far as I know my kid breezed through fourth or fifth grade without any nagging from me.
So while I may have overdone it, I make no apologies. The real reason I can’t stop watching television is that television happens to be fantastic these days. Imaginative. Fun. Thought-provoking. Most often, these shows are far better than mainstream movies and far more compelling than most novels. Not all of them, but a lot. This is the richest and deepest form of entertainment we now have available to a mass audience. My generation came home from school and watched Tom and Jerry or Gilligan’s Island in a perpetual loop and it was, without question, a monumental waste of time — the idiot box, indeed. It’s no longer so.
Moreover, binge-watching provides a more emotionally fulfilling experience than waiting around a week to move forward on these gripping narratives. I will rarely even watch a show when it is first released. Technological advances allow us to dispense with the antiquated notion of a cliffhanger. We can watch whenever we want in whatever time frame suits us. As Seneca — or maybe it was Walter White, for all I know — once said, “You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.” In judicious amounts and in discerning fashion, a person can calibrate his entertainment to meet his needs. This is why I binge. All you need is a modicum of self-control and one — or, preferably, all — of the available streaming services.
– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.