I’ve only been socially distancing for about a month, but I already have a confession to make: I’m addicted to bad TV. Perhaps bad is an overgeneralization — I’ve successfully managed to intermingle cringey, truly painful programs that I only talk about in close circles (Love is Blind and Sex and the City) with the sort of TV shows you put in your dating profile to attract indie softboys/gals (Fleabag, I Am Not Okay With This and Bojack Horseman). But the fact remains, all of this is simply too much for one person to be watching. As I sat on my couch last weekend — splayed out with my dog, chip crumbs on a ratty Dead Presidents t-shirt — watching Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, I had an uncomfortable realization: I had squandered my break watching meaningless television. I mean, I had also done other things, but still — far too much television. My pondering continued. Was there a reason that I couldn’t stop binging?
As it turns out, I’m not alone in my struggle. Modern television is designed to capture our attention, and current formats encourage the obsessive binging that has thus far taken over my break.
In the past, television took a very different form, with serial shows such as M*A*S*H, Cheers, Dallas and Friends defining decades of television in the U.S. The storylines of these “classic” serials prompted a very different kind of attention. You turned on your TV, watched the most recent, self-contained episode and discussed it with others as you went on with your life. Certainly, producers and directors used cliffhangers to encourage you to tune in the following week, but overall, the time that you could spend glued to your favorite episode was considerably shorter.
Technology hadn’t advanced enough to create the bingeable formats that we have now through streaming sites such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu or Disney+. Some of the most popular TV shows now rely on linear, season and series-long plotlines with clear expositional questions. Think Game of Thrones, where seven whole seasons of television (we don’t talk about season eight) were defined by one overarching question: Who will sit on the Iron Throne?
There’s also an obvious creative benefit to this new form of TV shows. Unlike before, directors now have the power to create what essentially amounts to multi-hour movies. All of those 20-minute episodes create rich, ongoing storylines that can spend hours delving into character arcs and hidden metaphors. If you’ve ever binged on an entire season of a well-crafted show, you know what I’m talking about. It’s like reading a good book — every page has you wanting more.
Beyond format, contemporary TV also triggers certain psychological reactions. In their 2003 paper TV Addiction is No Mere Metaphor, Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argue that humanity’s “orienting response,” which once saved us from prowling predators, results in a built-in sensitivity to movement that allows the rest of our body to relax when our brain is focusing its attention on one subject. This is a long way of saying that when we’re lying down on a couch and staring at a screen hour after hour, we feel relaxed. Research also suggests that special effects — cuts, edits, zooms, pans and sudden noises — keep us even more focused on the screen. TV shows have gone full Hitchcock, and audiences are more enraptured than ever before.
Once the TV is off, suddenly we’re back to our hyper-stressed, scatterbrained state. So, as the after credits roll by, viewers are faced with a dilemma. When the “Continue Watching” button pops up in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, the screen poses a question: do you keep watching, surrendering yourself to a bliss-filled life as a couch potato? Or do you take action, reaching forward to stop yourself and closing your computer screen? After two weeks, I’ve realized that I — like most people — pick the latter until I’m neck deep in season two at 3am.
With all that’s happening in the world, choosing to watch that next season of your favorite show may feel like the perfect escape. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks. But at this point, I’ve been forced to reconcile with the fact that I’m a TV junkie. I’m sure that other people are struggling in a similar manner. The point of this article isn’t to make you feel guilty. Instead, I hope that if you’re reading this, it will push you to break that habit. Meditate, grow your own sourdough starter, read Nietzsche with your friends over FaceTime. Just make sure to take the occasional break from that wondrous screen.
Mira Kudva Driskell is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org