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From Arrested Development to Dr. Who, Binge Watching Is Changing Our Culture

From <I>Arrested Development</I> to <I>Dr. Who</I>, Binge Watching Is Changing Our Culture

Cultural Anthropologist Grant McCracken writes on “binge watching” for

Never mind the fact that Arrested Development [has come back] as a revived fourth season of a show that ended seven years ago — yes, seven years ago, which is a lot in today’s cultural time. (To put that in perspective, just remember that 2006 was the same year that Twitter was founded. And that Foursquare, Google Plus, Instagram, Pinterest, and the recently acquired Tumblr didn’t even exist yet.)

Instead, let’s focus on the fact that all 15 episodes of the new season [have been] released all at once — exclusively on Netflix. This is interesting because just one month ago, Netflix was touting its House of Cards “binge watching” strategy of original content released all at once. Not only did people really gorge on a bunch of episodes, but Netflix shares were up 19 percent after its last earnings report. Instead of losing momentum for the show in one bang, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings observed that several months later “huge numbers” of viewers were just starting the series every week.

He also noted that with these improved economics comes improved storytelling, giving creators “more scope.” Even Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz acknowledged reinventing the form — “doing something really different storytelling wise” as a result of the decision to release the episodes all at once — because “in its purest form, a new medium requires a new format.”

However, is it really as simple as new-medium-new-message … or is there more happening here? Commenters like Hastings and others are so focused on arguing the trend of internet TV replacing “linear TV” that not enough thought has been given to why we binge watch and what it really changes for us, culturally.

Why do we binge watch? One way to answer this question is to say, well, we binge on TV for the same reason we binge on food. For a sense of security, creature comfort, to make the world go away. And these psychological factors are no doubt apt.

But the anthropological ones are perhaps just as useful and a little less obvious. Because, as I’ve explained here before, “culture is a thing of surfaces and secrets,” and the anthropologist is obliged to record the first and penetrate the second to figure out what’s really going on.

I believe we binge on TV to craft time and space, and to fashion an immersive near-world with special properties. We enter a world that is, for all its narrative complexity, a place of sudden continuity. We may have made the world “go away” for psychological purposes, but here, for anthropological ones, we have built another in its place. The second screen in some ways becomes our second home.

And if we share that binging with our families or friends, we can make that world — that show — a place of sudden commonality. (Think about all those couples with crazy busy, vastly different days creating shared spaces of intimacy around watching even seasons-old shows together after their kids sleep.) Contrary to what others may argue here, we don’t lose that that “shared cultural space,” the shared experience of everyone talking about the same shows. We just narrow the space to an island inhabited only by ourselves instead of all of America watching the same show at once.

Michael Chabon has a wonderful essay on Dr. Who (in his collection Manhood for Amateurs), on what it means to his family that they have all watched the show together. As one reviewer observed, the experience gave them the “gift of each other” through the show since “fandom and families are the same, with their rituals and obsessions.” The Chabon clan made a place for themselves in the narrative and is arguably richer and happier in the bargain. But the shared experience also created a shared language, a shared reference point for them. Just as, in my case, my wife and I will sometimes give one another a knowing glance when we’re in the real-life presence of someone who vibrates with the contradictions of the fictional character played by Michael Chiklis in The Shield.

It is some credit to the world of TV that it now serves up shows that can serve as auxiliary worlds in this way. A lot of people who came late to The Wire ended up binging to catch up. So much of contemporary culture leaves the station without us; binging is a way to climb aboard … and get back in touch with culture outside the constraints of time. Binge watching breaks the linearity of having to watch TV on someone else’s terms.

But binge watching, like binging on food, has its side effects, too.

For one thing, it changes and creates a whole new kind of spoiler culture. Spoilers are now longer accidental, they’re things we “must actively avoid,” sometimes going to great lengths to avoid social media and apps, not to mention instant-recaps and classic news feeds.

And then there’s the effect of sudden continuity in narrative structure. While some of the shows we now binge watch, like Arrested Development and House of Cards, were created for excess consumption, most others were built to play at weekly intervals. When we watch them in quick succession, we compress the arc of the narrative until it becomes one great blur.

Let’s face it, some shows were not meant to be binge-watched. Can viewers really gorge on shows like Lost, for example, when those immersive experiences were meant to be spread out in bite-size chunks to leave room for reflection in between? Even Arrested Development’s Hurwitz notes that he personally thinks it would be “be very fatiguing and will lose some of the fun of being able to mull on it.”

While it may be annoying to be stuck with all those intros and the outros that remind us where we are in the arc with linearly spaced shows, they also serve an important signposting function that avoids “narrative collapse.” Though Douglas Rushkoff, who coined that term, also argues that it may now be acceptable to inhabit a non-linear narrative, game-playing-like world as in Game of Thrones (or even Mad Men) which seem to have no clear beginning, middle, end. Arrested Development’s new episodes will also have no order.

But perhaps this is as it should be. After all, American culture itself is a work in progress. We invent ourselves as we go, responding to a culture that is endlessly dynamic and increasingly demanding. In this context, TV has always been a kind of intravenous feed, where meaning — carefully crafted by creative and culture-makers — pours in and through us.

When binging, we are “mainlining” this cultural IV feed with new intensity. We don’t just watch – Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, LostMad MenThe Wire – we occupy. We inhabit it. Such relocation is powerful for creating meaning for the self and for the family, especially as TV has taken on a new role in our lives. It has become the structural equivalent of our place in the country, our second home. Lots of people have these second homes, of course, but even they are inclined to prize TV for its immersive qualities, as a place to go, as a way out of this world into ones we like more. So much of the near world is unpleasant or testing. It is nice to have a respite, and nicer still to maximize this effect by binging.

Grant McCracken/ 2013