In the Name of Family Fun

An Argument Against Bingewatching

Netflix represents both a revolutionary new model for watching TV and the end of the collective viewing experience. Is this compromise worth it?

If you’re like me, then you know what it’s like to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad in 48 hours. In fact, you’ve probably done it in half that time. What I’m talking about is a ‘Netflix binge,’ and I’ve never come out of a Netflix binge feeling good. After watching the first season of Orange is the New Black in a single day, I felt a lot like the man emerging from Plato’s cave—blinded by light and disoriented, except not really enlightened. For me, a Netflix binge is not so much watching TV as it is an overload of information that turns my brain into mush.

I’m less concerned with the delirium one feels after not leaving one’s dorm room for days, however, than with how the Netflix model isolates the viewing experience of television. The traditional experience of watching television is already an isolating experience compared to that of watching cinema. Imagine seeing The Shawshank Redemption on a 30 x 60 foot screen surrounded by two hundred other people versus watching it on the USA Network on a 35 inch flat screen in your parents’ house, interspersed by Allstate commercials.

Think about how you watch your favorite TV shows. Sure, you might watch Game of Thrones with a group of friends weekly—it’s not hard to organize group screenings for television giants such as GOT. But what about semi-popular television shows? Do you organize a group of friends to watch every episode of Mad Men, The Walking Dead, or Orange is the New Black? Keep in mind that unless you have a TV with Netflix, your viewing party will watch Netflix exclusives (like House of Cards and OITNB) on a computer screen.

Frankly, watching your favorite shows on Netflix, whether on your TV or on your computer, makes complete and absolute sense. Netflix is unbelievably convenient, which is why the streaming giant has over 33 million subscribers in the US alone. But if we continue to accept the Netflix model, then we ought to identify what’s at stake. What do we lose when we watch film or television in an isolated form for the sake of convenience?

I went to Brown University Film Forum’s screening of Annie Hall two weeks ago, and it was unlike any Annie Hall viewing experience I’ve ever had. I’ve seen Annie Hall countless times before, on TV and on a computer, but this was my first time seeing the film in a somewhat proper theater format. Needless to say, it was incredible. It wasn’t just because the screen was bigger, or the sound more immersive. It was because I was with my friends. We laughed harder and cried bigger, wetter tears. We felt the movie as a community.

Watching film or TV in a collective environment turns the mindless, passive consumption of media into something a bit more magical—it becomes an experience. Comedies are funnier, thrillers are scarier, political dramas are slightly more engaging. The problem with the Netflix model is not that there’s anything outwardly detrimental about it, but rather that using it means we deny ourselves the advantages of watching film or TV in a group environment; our emotions are reinforced by those around us. There’s no doubt in my mind that when I watched Annie Hall, I laughed harder because I wanted to laugh harder, and I’m sure other people around me felt the same way.

And hey, no one should be forced to watch every episode of their favorite TV show with a large group of friends—it’s insane and unrealistic to think that that’s achievable. However, running with Netflix means that we have to decide how we want to consume film and television—for the sake of convenience or for the sake of creating a more heightened emotional experience.

I can only speak from my own perspective. For the past five years, I have watched every single episode of Game of Thrones with a good friend of mine, Harry, and his family. There are seven of us total. Snacks as follows: popcorn, Junior Mints, pretzels and scotcheroos. Everyone in our viewing group with the exception of Harry’s father has read the Game of Thrones books. For me, no television moment will ever come close to that of watching the infamous Red Wedding episode. The tension of everyone in Harry’s living room, except for his dad, knowing that [SPOILERS] Robb and Catelyn Stark were about to be brutally murdered was one of the most exciting and unbearable experiences I’ve ever had watching a TV show. Moments like these I would never sacrifice for a Netflix binge.