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?
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.
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.
- Downton Abbey (1/3/15, season 5, 8 episodes)
- Girls (1/11/15, season 4, 10 episodes)
- Indian Summers (2/15/15, season 1, 10 episodes)
- Game of Thrones (4/12/15, season 5, 10 episodes)
- Humans (6/14/15, season 1, 8 episodes)
- Mr. Robot (6/24/15, season 1, 10 episodes)
- Fargo (10/12/15 season 2, 10 episodes)
- The Man in the High Castle (11/20/15, season 1, 10 episodes)
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.
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.
- TV Shows Ranked By Year – Metacritic
- Best TV Shows of 2015 So Far – IMDb
- The Best Television of 2015 – NPR
- The Best TV Shows 2015 – Vox
- 20 Best TV Shows of 2015 So Far – Rolling Stone
- 100 Best TV Shows of 2015 – TV.com
- The 10 Best TV Shows of 2015 – BBC
- Tim Goodman: The Best TV of 2015 – Hollywood Reporter
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.