The Most Addictive TV Shows of 2015

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2015

How is it possible that we’ll watch four one-hour episodes of the same TV show in one evening? Has streaming technology changed us? Has television become insidiously addictive? Or, do we just feel a deep desire to escape ordinary life? If we’d had Netflix back in the 1950s, would we have binge-watched Gunsmoke? I actually feel that television is constantly getting better, that the art of telling a story on the small screen is evolving. One reason shows are binge-watched is because they tell one story, like a novel, over a season. So I wouldn’t have binge-watched TV in the past, because those shows were complete in one episode. When the stories are compelling and extended, we want to keep watching, even well past our bedtime.

The Boob Tube has always been addictive, but it used to be just habit forming like marijuana, but now it’s painful-withdrawal addictive like heroin. In 2015 there were 409 scripted television shows. The competition to create binge-worthy shows is fierce. A study could be made as to what story elements are required to make a compelling fiction. I just finished season 2 of Fargo, where I completed it’s ten episodes in four days by watching 2-3 episodes an evening. It’s gruesome body count seemed inappropriate compared to the wholesome Christmas movies my wife wanted to watch. But, Susan is much more of a TV binge watcher than I am. She can watch 10-12 episodes of a favorite show in a weekend. Of course, people binge-read too, like my brother-in-law Cayce who is reading the 14-volume Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, where each book is a giant volume by itself. Why have we gotten so addicted to make-believe?

Humans

I prefer to watch television with friends, which often means watching two episodes a week on a Friday night. Janis, Mike, Betsy and I just finished The Man in the High Castle. It was so great we had to finish up the last two episodes early, on a Sunday night. There are downsides to watching binge-worth TV with friends: the urge is to cheat. Watching on our own is convenient, but ruins the social fun. But when this happens, and I do it, I end up watching some episodes twice. Or I’ll watch shows twice because I want to see them with different people. I watched Humans and Mr. Robot with two sets of friends, and I enjoyed those shows so much that seeing each episode twice was not boring in the least. Television shows have evolved so much that they are complex enough to rewatch and still discover new insights.

Mr Robot

I now worry about being too addicted to binge-worthy TV. Broadcast TV is still catching up to premium TV. I often have to buy my shows because I don’t have cable. The best of the best TV is so good, that I’m becoming a junky craving ever more powerful TV highs. I can’t imagine how good television can get, but shows in the 2020s might become paralyzing. My TV buddy Janis and I are always edgy when we don’t have a binge-worth TV show to watch. Last night we tried several shows hoping to find one that would hook us. I watched Fargo without her, and she’s a little miffed. But she does the same thing to me—finding shows to view alone without me. It takes discipline to wait and watch shows with friends because it’s always problematic to schedule TV viewing with a friend, and especially difficult coordinating three or more people.

For me, the best experience is to share a great TV show. If you have no one to get excited over a show, somehow the show doesn’t seem as great. And discovering what kinds of shows your friends love is so revealing. It’s bonding. It’s resonating. All my friends binge-watch now. My main bond with some people are through discussing TV.

Here are the shows that came out during the year that I loved the most in 2015.

I watched many more shows during the year that came out before 2015, like Mozart in the Jungle season 1, The Knick season 1, The 100 season 2 and Fargo season 1. There were other shows I loved the first or second season, but they petered out this year like Orange is the New Black, Vikings and House of Cards. Novelty is everything with binge-watching.

the man in  the high castle

Since I could never watch everything that came out in 2015, you should read these lists below. You’ll notice that several shows, many of of which I watched, were listed over and over again.

Essay #991 – Table of Contents

Postscript – written later that night:

This essay really didn’t do what I wanted. There is a certain quality to fiction that I crave, that I find in books, movies and television shows. I was just washing some dishes and for a fleeting moment I wondered if fiction isn’t the way we seek to live differently. But it’s more than just wanting to exchange our boring lives for exciting ones. Fiction has a pacing and logic that improves on normal life.

When I was watching the new Star Wars film today I felt its creators were trying to find their way home, which in this case was the first Star Wars movie. Could it be that Star Wars creates a high that its fans seek to live? I wish life felt like my favorite songs, which explains soundtracks, because most people would feel life is better with a backing score. When I was a kid, one reason I liked smoking grass was it gave life a tinge of drama. Fiction vibes are much different from real life vibes.

After watching The Man in the High Castle miniseries I reread the book for the third time by listening to it. The ending of the book is much different from the movie. Juliana Crane has an insight to the book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. She feels its fictional revelations, inspired by the mystical ancient text, I Ching, understands life. Philip K. Dick, a notorious paranoid, playing around with alternate history and the many world hypothesis, suggests that life is like a book. Poor PKD so desperately wanted “The Answer.” As the omniscient narrator he could give his creations the logic we seek.

I’m thinking different kinds of books give different kinds of highs, and what we crave from fiction is life with the kind of high we get from our favorite books.

Of course that opens up a whole can of Freudian worms when I wonder about me loving shows like Fargo and Breaking Bad. I imagine the high folks get from Star Wars is like those they get from comic books and video games, which is very youthful. The highs I like from fiction come from getting old.

JWH

4 thoughts on “The Most Addictive TV Shows of 2015”

  1. I highly recommend “The Last Kingdom” which premiered in 2015 and is set in the same period and environs as “Vikings”. The best part is that the video series is based on a solid book series by Bernard Cornwell, so if it continues it shouldn’t suffer from the “pulling the plot out of their ass” syndrome that afflicts so many otherwise promising serialized dramas.

    Speaking of Bernard Cornwell, he also authored another excellent book series, the Sharpe novels (21 books!), which follow the career of an up-from-the-ranks British army officer in the Napoleonic era. These were dramatised by the BBC in the 1990’s and early 2000’s (sixteen episodes in all, available on DVD) and star Sean Bean along with a very good supporting cast. These older videos are somewhat more episodic than newer shows but are enjoyable enough to warrant watching more than once, and they do form a complete arc, with several sub-plots over the course of the series. Both the books and the video series have many devoted followers.

    The Sharpe series is reminiscent of C. S. Forester’s wonderful Hornblower books. This ten book series is the granddaddy of age-of-sail naval epics (as well as a bunch of SF books), but is also very character-driven. If you’ve never read them, run don’t walk and I envy you the fresh experience. In the late 90’s/early 2000’s the BBC produced some very nice videos starring Ioan Gruffudd which cover the early part of Hornblower’s career (on DVD, but watch out for differing episode titles used in British and American markets — there are only eight episodes). There’s also a 1951 Gregory Peck movie, “Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.”

    There are some real treasures on older video (mostly BBC) and you don’t have to wait for the series to be completed. One that comes to mind is “I, Claudius” with Derek Jacobi — a real must-see. Jacobi’s Cadfael series is also a lot of fun, though unlike “I, Claudius”, the Cadfael shows are completely episodic. And if you never caught the classic 1980 “Shogun” mini-series, a good quality version was recently re-released on DVD/Bluray.

    1. I, Claudius is one of my all-time favorite television programs. I bought it on DVD when it came out, but it’s on those damn flippy discs, so I’m even thinking of buying it again. I’ll have to check out The Last Kingdom. I remember the Sharpe novels, from long ago, but haven’t seen any in years. And I’ll have to track down the Blu-ray Shogun mini-series. I loved it and the book, but it’s been a long while. There’s been some damn good television over the years.

      1. Yeah, I re-watched “I, Claudius” a few years ago with someone I was dating and was pleased at how well it had held up since it originally aired. Amazing how much you can do with little but good writing and fine acting. Oh, and “Red Dwarf” also — watching those with company made them seem so funny I hurt myself laughing. “Firefly” is another series I always enjoy re-watching and short enough for a great binge. More recently, if you liked “Downton Abbey”, you’d probably also enjoy “Mr. Selfridge”.

        I enjoyed the Sharpe novels, but I absolutely love the TV series. Sean Bean is always good, but I think this is the best thing he’s ever done and most all the other players are just as good, whether lesser known or familiar faces such as Brian Cox, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige, and Elizabeth Hurley. The action is somewhat limited by the budgets, but they make up for that with strong atmosphere, characterization and wit. The best shows always have a unique “flavor” to them that leaves you wanting more.

  2. Television is something I enjoy, but I’m as quirky about it as I am about my reading. I prefer short stories and stand alone novels to long series, and I see that in my television preferences too.

    That isn’t to say that I don’t find series compelling, but I prefer those that maintain some sort of single-episode structure with an overarching narrative, like the Star Trek series, to those that build each episode upon one another…shows like Lost come to mind, which I never could get into as I am turned off by that structure. 24 is another one. I did not want to keep watching a show with that level of tension where every week there was some big reveal or some narrative line that didn’t end, but just continued.

    I look at a show like Life as a good example of a balance between an ongoing story line and single-episode narrative.

    I also tend to binge watch some shows for awhile and then step away from them for long periods. Arrow is one of those shows. I watch several in a row and then feel the need to take a break.

    I don’t generally keep up with any hour long shows during the season. Blindspot has been the one exception this year, and I really enjoyed that show.

    I will keep up with a handful of half hour comedies, because they are fun to watch with my wife while we are eating dinner, or having an evening snack. We keep up with The Middle, Brooklyn 99…and then we try out different off-beat, mostly British stuff.

    My favorite TV this year has been:

    Blindspot
    The Expanse
    Vera
    Midsomer Murders
    Brokenwood
    Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries
    Count Arthur Strong

    and we just started Longmire and have been enjoying it.

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