i Need Media

Under pressure: TV is hard in the era of binge watching

By Matthew Singer 03/27/2014

As of this writing, I’m only about two-thirds through the second season of House of Cards. In media critic circles, that is simply unacceptable. The entire season has been on Netflix for more than a month now. What possible excuse could I have for not seeing the whole thing yet? Well, I’ve been busy. I’ve got a time consuming job, a girlfriend, a fairly active social calendar and a very needy cat. Still, in the era of the binge-watch, life is never supposed to get in the way of entertainment. Either you consume the culture that’s in front of you right now, or the rest of the world moves on without you.

That bums me out.

It’s been said that excessive choice makes people depressed. I used to think that was bullshit. I’m old enough to remember the time just before the Internet placed the entirety of human existence at our fingertips. Even those born just a few years after me can’t fathom how positively mind-blowing the notion of file sharing was when it first came into being. I spent my mid-teens through my 20s downloading every album that seemed remotely interesting, amassing a digital music collection of around 200 gigabytes. I don’t know if I’ve listened to even half of that. There are times when I stare at my iTunes or iPod completely frozen: “Do I listen to this album I’ve heard a million times, or this album I haven’t played once? Do I follow what my ears want in this moment, or do I act out of obligation?”
A lot of times, I end up just sitting in silence.

As I’ve crossed over into my 30s, I’ve tried to get back to buying actual records again. Not because I’m one of those people who cherishes “the tangible object,” or that I’m any sort of audiophile, but because I want limitations again.

I’m starting to feel the same way about television. Any show we could possibly want to see is attainable, one way or another, to watch at our leisure. But the problem with personal leisure is that it breeds alienation. People talk about the millennial monoculture, but when everyone is consuming at their own pace, just how connected are we, really? We’ve created a society in which casual conversation is embedded with clear and present dangers; deflecting spoilers has become an art unto itself. I don’t necessarily pine for the pre-DVR days of water-cooler chitchat, but what is a TV show — or any art, really — if it can’t be discussed? Then it becomes just a thing in a box, projected at us in isolation. That’s depressing. 

And then there’s simply the pressure. Look, I love TV almost as much as music and film, but if you’ve read this column, you’ll see there are plenty of classic shows I haven’t watched. I wish I had the time to properly catch up on everything, but there are stories I have to write and a cat to feed. Omar Little, Tony Soprano and Frank Underwood will just have to wait.

i Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.


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