Binge-watchers: Beware the ‘lifestyle optimization’ trap
Are you still watching?
Are you still watching?

Image: Vicky Leta

2017%2f10%2f20%2fa0%2fchloebryan11.0b114By Chloe Bryan

In Binged, Mashable breaks down why we binge-watch, how we binge-watch, and what it does to us. Because binge-watching is the new normal. 


I found out about Tidying Up with Marie Kondo on Twitter. As far as reality TV was concerned, it seemed up my alley: wholesome and not strenuous, with a strong focus on transformation. When I noticed people were already making memes about it, I was sold all over again. Knowing memes is part of my job!

Over the course of a single Sunday, I binge-watched the entire season — all eight episodes. It wasn’t a bad experience. (Like many viewers, I did not enjoy the “babe” couple, and I would watch a separate show starring the family from the downsizing episode.) At several points, I didn’t really want to keep watching, but I pressed on. I knew people were going to be talking about this … and, embarrassingly, I wanted to tweet about it.

By the time I was done, I felt that familiar post-binge weariness, like I’d emerged from a long, dark, KonMari’d tunnel. Had the show sparked joy? Not necessarily. But I was ready to crack jokes about Marie folding a #SquadGoals tank top.

marie kondo telling viewers at home to thank their clothes while she folds someone else’s shirt that says “#squadgoals” sums up how uncomfortable this show makes me feel

— gin erso (@hotdogroller) January 4, 2019

Several people told me via Twitter that they’ve binge-watched a show for reasons other than enjoyment. One respondent, for example, said she watched Stranger Things to ensure she was caught up with the zeitgeist, even though she wasn’t particularly excited about it. “I binge-watched the first season before the second season came out. I did it because I wanted to understand the jokes and memes … and I wanted to be ready for the second season if I did end up liking it.”

SEE ALSO: Netflix’s year-end rankings reveal the most binged shows and movies

She did end up enjoying the show, but not everyone reported such sunny results. “I’m literally hate-playing through [Red Dead Redemption 2] right now even though I’ve already decided I hate it and it’s not a good game, just so I can a) hear the D’Angelo song and b) know how the story ends,” another respondent explained via Twitter DM. “I literally played for 8 hours straight this weekend trying to knock it all out and didn’t finish.”

Had the show sparked joy? Not necessarily. But I was ready to crack jokes.

Of course, people have been blowing through entire seasons of Mad Men in a day since the dawn of streaming. But our growing tendency to think of binge-watching as a way to build cultural and social capital is less “fun pastime” and more “optimized lifestyle.” It buys into an influencer-fueled way of living: one that incorporates all the best products, maximizes the productivity of each moment, and is organized fastidiously to make you the “best version” of yourself. Many of us, for instance, feel pressured to speed through The Sopranos not because we’re personally invested, but because it feels like a show we’re supposed to watch. (I understand The Sopranos is good, but let’s not pretend it’s not also a way to gain clout.)

There are too many TV shows. Those TV shows are too long. And while the number of TV shows we feel obliged to watch increases seemingly by the day, the pressure to build a “collection” of consumed media is more intense than ever. You have to watch fast, too — when new episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel arrive, you’d better be prepared to talk about what went down before your coworkers spoil it.

At its core, the idea is that you get more out of life by deliberately immersing yourself in things that are valuable, like exercise, podcasts, Better Call Saul. There’s too much TV, yes, but a lot of it is good. TV is art — it’s been art the whole time, even if that’s only been recognized in recent years — and it’s available in spades, to be consumed infinitely. Immersing yourself in art is a good thing, right? So why not plow through Killing Eve in less than 12 hours, fueled by Sour Patch Kids and cliffhangers?

SEE ALSO: ‘Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23’ is the throwback binge you deserve

As we’ve known for a while now, bingeing television shows is likely not the best way to retain information. A 2017 study published in the peer-reviewed journal First Monday found that while participants who binge-watched a show remembered it well right after watching, they forgot details more quickly than those who spaced out their viewing. So while you might be able to hang onto those plot nuances long enough to debrief with your friends the next day, you probably won’t recall them when season 2 rolls around. (It’s worth noting, as the study did, that many shows in the Netflix era are designed to be binge-watched; they assume you’ve taken in expository information recently and probably still remember it.)

Can Netflix stop with all these 1 season shows cause I binge watch them and get addicted and then there’s no more to watch

— Madison Hamlet (@MadisonHamlet) January 13, 2019

Sadly, binge-watchers likely won’t enjoy the show as much, either. The same study also found that participants who binged on a show (in this case, The Game) reported lower levels of enjoyment than participants who watched episodes on a daily or weekly basis.

If you’re not enjoying a show to its fullest extent and you’re not remembering it long-term … that’s a pretty bleak picture. Acquiring the biggest stack of luxury goods won’t make you happy or intellectually fulfilled, and neither will acquiring the biggest stack of episodes. Not if you haven’t really absorbed them.

Of course, there are still plenty of things to love about binge-watching. Entering a fantasy world for a whole afternoon can be indescribably comforting, especially if it’s one you’ve visited before. Plus, y’all … the binge-watching snack possibilities? Truly endless.

Still, it’s worth thinking about before you weld yourself to your couch and hit play for the sixth time in a row. The next time I’m thinking of forcing another episode when it’s one in the morning and The OA is only OK, I’ll ask myself this: Do I like the process of watching this show, or do I just want to be caught up? If I can’t muster up genuine excitement for the journey, it might not actually spark joy. At the very least, I might want to save that next episode for tomorrow.

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