The Era of Netflixing: How a Modern Audience Engages Television

In my teenage years I worked in the kitchen of a family restaurant, first as a dishwasher and then eventually as a cook for about six years or so. In my earlier years at the restaurant, I worked with a cook named Bob who had a love affair with Seinfeld. It was a few years after the series had ended and right around the time that they started releasing the show on DVD. Bob used to constantly reference the show in the kitchen and talk about how every night after work he would catch an episode or two on syndication and sip a beer or two until he fell asleep. He just loved it so much. Seinfeld was his favorite hobby and his best friend. It was a shock to all of us when Bob died suddenly of a heart attack, supposedly on some seemingly innocuous weekday when he was watching his favorite show. Everybody kept saying that he probably died laughing. And I kid you not that when I went to the wake and peered inside the coffin, amongst the scattered baseball glove, flowers, and random pictures, I saw those Seinfeld DVDs. It was all true. He had a heartfelt relationship with that television series, and not to be too morbid or anything, but he literally took that with him to the grave.

The point of that very sad story was to demonstrate the traditional way that people can engage with television. It’s crazy to think about, but people developed serious connections to shows. In Bob’s time people had to wait at least 24 hours or typically a full week in between each new episode of their favorite programs. Not only that, but they had to contend with the end of seasons and the summer hiatus that came with it. People like Bob used to connect with their television programs, develop relationships with the characters, and cherish the stories. We would spend seasons and years dedicated to a series through all of the ups and downs, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Romantic? Yep. Exaggerated? Not at all. In stretching out the relationship with our television programming, these shows become lifelong influences that enrich our lives. That’s how we are meant to enjoy our free time: in brief and infrequent periods of leisure. Measured. Controlled. Paced.

Bob quite literally passed away when everything began to change; it started with DVDs of entire seasons and then whole series. Before long, the internet began to slowly and gradually obliterate the need for even DVDs. And here we are in 2013 where the capacity to binge watch just about anything is at our fingertips. In an era dominated by the internet, modern man demands that his technology deliver his wants and needs as quickly as possible. In our supposedly consumer-oriented society, the ideal is to consume our goods immediately and repeatedly. People demand instant results, whether it be with their weight-loss program, food, education, or any of a million convenience-oriented online or mobile services, programs, applications, and websites. Society tells us what we should want, and we want it now. All of it. “Entertain me now and forever!” we say. “And do it right this Instant!” Right this (Netflix) Instant.

So we get services like Netflix Instant Streaming, and thus begins the era of Netflixing.

These days, what separates Bob from the seventeen-year-old who binge watches all of Seinfeld on DVD or somehow watches it online over their winter break from college? Perhaps an even better example are the adults – both British and otherwise – who have watched Doctor Who for decades and decades only to have young kids start the series on Netflix and be completely caught up in less than two weeks. Teens pop up on Tumblr en masse, claiming to be a fan of this or a fan of that. But can you really compare the two? Is it fair to even try? But does Doctor Who mean anything less to the little girl who goes to Comic Con with her parents just to meet Matt Smith than it does to the incoming Doctor, Peter Capaldi, who wrote a letter to Radio Times magazine thirty-five years ago in praise of the show? Perhaps it is not the length of the relationship that matters so much as the depth.

But can you call my relationship to House of Cards (for instance) a particularly “deep” one? Sure, I enjoyed the show immensely, but like many people who watched the Netflix Original Series, I did so almost entirely on one single snowy weekend in January. I binged out the entire season, had an existential hangover during which I swore to buy a rowing machine and become a badass politician. But by the week’s end I had all but completely forgotten about the show. Our relationship was over before it really started, and I moved on within days. It was a binge, a fling, and as meaningless and fleeting as a one-night stand.

Or take my experience with Battlestar Galactica, which was virtually identical to the hilarious skit from Portlandia featured above. BSG is amazing, one of the best realistic sci-fi adventures out there (I use “realistic” loosely here; as in, sure, in four-hundred years something similar might happen). For about a month I would come home from work, eat, and plop in front of the TV with a few beers and binge my way through Battlestar. I loved it. Once the month-long binge was over, I felt lost, confused. I still say frak more than any other swear, but when it all wrapped up, there was this gaping hole. What would I do after work now? Where did all my friends go? Why are there no more episodes…?

The complete opposite happened with my streaming relationship with Doctor Who. I began watching the show over a year ago and started with the Ninth Doctor (as many of us do nowadays). Despite having the option to plow through several seasons on Netflix ASAP, I refrained and watched at a much slower pace. Here I am now, still not even through David Tennant’s tenure while Matt Smith is on his way out in a few short months. Despite loving the show and always wanting to stay up later than I ought to in order to catch one more episode, I refrain. I simulate (in a mild way) what it’s actually like to watch a show rather than binge it. It allows my mind to wander and my imagination to jump into high gear. “What could happen next?” I imagine new time periods or planets the Doctor might go to. I quite literally dream up adventures and have developed a mild obsession with David Tennant. I feel like a little kid again, comparable to when I was consumed by the likes of Pokemon and Harry Potter when I would gibber, wide-eyed with friends, “OMG what IF it was REAL!?!?”

What if it was real indeed? As a child, I got into writing because of how much I loved so many different fictional universes. Pokemon. Harry Potter. Final Fantasy. That’s the greatest thing about stories: they inspire us. They stretch our imaginations and challenge us to dream. But when we don’t even have time between episodes to digest what we are seeing, that all changes. When our lust for more is sated constantly, then the imagination is stifled and doesn’t have the space or time to run wild. This phenomenon of Netflixing stifles and overstimulates us. When you’re constantly watching your constantly passive. You might be watching more, but you’re actually disengaging from reality more than anything else.

We cannot deny, however, how valuable and important streaming services have begun. Second life was breathed into Arrested Development when Netflix picked it up exclusively. Despite the lackluster storyline that basically flopped the beloved show, Netflix has been slowly garnering up enough exclusives to warrant the monthly cost of $7.99 for its streaming services. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are worth that price of admission alone. And a whole slew of beloved and immensely popular series are available to start from the very beginning. The creator of Breaking Bad cites on-demand viewers as the source of the shows great success. I believe it. Twitter and FacebookI would love to see how many people have been binge-watching that show over the past few months in anticipation of the finale. A whole slew of fantastic shows are available from their beginnings on Netflix: LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who (new and classic), How I Met Your Mother, 30 Rock, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and the list goes on and on.

There’s no doubt about it that services like Netflix are changing the way we view television and how we are entertained, but like any good thing, we need to moderate how often and how much we take advantage of this luxury. If not, we might wind up with Netflix Anonymous before long. I sometimes wonder what Bob might have thought about Netflix and how much it has changed our culture. Is it really a good thing that we are so obsessed with our entertainment?

What are your favorite binge-viewing experiences? Favorite shows to watch on Netflix? Let us know in the comments!

Please enjoy this hilarious clip from This is 40 about binging LOST – spoilers included.

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