Binge TV watching: “You don’t want to know”

Never mind that noise. It's just a bunch of walkers...

The “walker” down in the well was making that characteristic noise they make — the half-strangled, wheezy, snuffling snarl — as the survivors debated what to do about getting it out of there. And I guess I had it turned up a little louder than usual.

My wife called from another part of the house, “What is that noise?”

I hesitated.

Then, I said, “You don’t want to know.”

She laughed, and dropped it. I breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t have to answer further, which would have embarrassed me. I was deep into a “Walking Dead” binge. And I knew that my wife had the exact attitude toward the series that I did before I got hooked on it — I couldn’t imagine wasting my time watching something that gross.

I had recorded the entire second season when they showed it in marathon form a weekend or two back, and was well into it now. This was to prepare me for the premiere of the third season, which is in… October! How’m I going to wait that long? Especially if this season leaves things hanging the way it almost certainly will, with this unresolved conflict between Rick and Shane, and Herschel likely to throw everybody off the farm any minute? And of course, walkers all over the place, and ammunition in finite supply.

At the back of my mind lingers another worry — my DVR is running out of space. Do I go ahead and erase this when I’ve watched them all? And what about the most recent seasons of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men,” which aren’t on Netflix yet? OK, I can erase “Breaking Bad” Sunday, when the Season 5 premieres and Season 4 does go up on Netflix, but what about the rest? It’s a tough call.

So it is that I could identify with this piece in The Wall Street Journal this morning, headlined, “Binge Viewing: TV’s Lost Weekends,” which is all about how, “Using streaming and DVRs, TV viewers are increasingly gobbling up entire seasons of shows in marathon sessions: How that’s changing the game for media companies, advertisers and show creators.”

An excerpt:

With the new season of “Breaking Bad” starting Sunday night, Chad Rohrbacher plopped down on his couch recently to catch up on some past episodes of the show about a chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin. Twenty-two hours passed before he clicked off the set. Pausing only for bathroom breaks, sandwiches and occasional comments of disbelief from his wife, he watched two entire seasons in one go. “It just kind of snowballed,” the 40-year-old novelist and college professor recalls.

When last season ended with a showdown between the bespectacled antihero and his drug boss, Mr. Rohrbacher watched the climax alone in his Greensboro, N.C., living room at 4 a.m. “I could barely see,” he says. The next day, “he was there in body, not in mind,” says his wife, Melanie, who did not participate. “I have a house and kids to take care of.”…

I feel for you, Chad. Been there.

Used to be, I had Netflix — and my DVR —  just for the movies. In fact, that was pretty much the only reason I had a TV. But now, that’s changed. And AMC has played a big role in making that happen. They seem the best at making must-keep-watching, high-quality TV shows. And now, you can watch them all at once.

So you’re saying that you’re a grownup, and you have your head on straight and a solid set of priorities, so this doesn’t affect you. Well, yes it does, if you watch TV at all — because it’s altering what’s being offered. Writers are having to write differently for this kind of audience. And it’s changing the whole business:

The industry ramifications are bigger than the occasional weekend lost to “Lost.” Bingeing breaks habits that have long supported the TV business, built on advertising and syndicated reruns. TV executives are torn by the development: gratified that people are gorging on their product, frustrated because it’s a TV party that all-important advertisers aren’t invited to. For middlemen like Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus and Netflix, it’s a godsend, boosting their quest to attract and retain subscribers. Writers and producers are just starting to confront the challenges of creating TV for an audience that may digest an entire season in one sitting.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of “Breaking Bad,” got his start in the writers room for “The X-Files.” There, he was schooled by creator Chris Carter in building cliffhangers to lure the audience through commercial breaks and into the next episode. Now, besides unspooling a narrative week by week, year by year, writers must also keep in mind fans who take the story “in a giant inhalation,” says Mr. Gilligan.

He describes his show as “hyper-serialized,” in the way writers try to close the loop on every character and plot point. A homemade poison that methamphetamine whiz Walter White (Bryan Cranston) tried to use on a drug dealer in season two ended up driving a big plot twist in season four. “We use every bit of the buffalo,” says Mr. Gilligan. He now believes fans who devour multiple seasons in short order are “more rewarded” because their memories of all the story threads are fresher. (Others disagree: TV critics are arguing about whether serialized TV is better when savored between episodes.)

Of course, the good news is, if I’m caught up on all three of the AMC series I watch (there would be four, if they hadn’t cancelled “Rubicon“), and I haven’t gone off on another tangent, like that period several months ago when I was plunging through all six seasons of “Lost,” I’m relatively free to live my life — interact with actual humans, or even read a book.

But when I’m in the middle of a season, it can be bad. The WSJ piece warns, “Brain chemistry plays a role in bingeing. ‘We get into something akin to a trance with great storytelling,’ says psychiatrist Norman Doidge, author of ‘The Brain That Changes Itself.’ Viewers identify with characters on screen and subconsciously begin to mimic their emotions—be it sadness or triumph or anxiety—and each emotional state triggers different brain chemicals, which linger.”

No kidding. I remember, in the first couple of seasons of “Breaking Bad,” when I’d stayed up long after my wife had gone to bed, I’d hesitate to go in and hit the sack, because I felt guilty. She might wake up and ask questions. No, I hadn’t personally been running a mobile meth lab and killing off competitors and keeping it a secret from my wife. That was Walter White. But I’d been so wrapped up in his tension, trying to keep it from his wife, that my nerves were on edge. I felt like an accomplice. I felt like I was descending into the sordid depths as surely as he was.

This feeling eased up in the most recent season, as Walter became more ruthless and started agonizing less over his actions. So… does that mean I’m as bad as he is now? Aye, there’s the rub.

But there’s always the fallback. If there are any questions, I’ll just say, “You don’t want to know.”

Nothing, dear! I'm just cooking up a batch of... stuff...

5 thoughts on “Binge TV watching: “You don’t want to know”

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    Breaking Bad got too violent for our tastes….we are enjoying a string of British and Canadian shows on Amazon Prime while waiting for our Netflix DVDs to arrive. The DVDs are still the only way to see a lot of good films and shows, but I think they must have really been improving the selection on Watch Instantly…..

  2. Ralph Hightower


    AMC has delayed the Season 3 premiere of Walking Dead until November timed with the November elections.

    AMC’s President and CEO, Josh Sapan, said that the delay is necessary so they can relocate the production company and actors to Columbia, South Carolina because of verified reports of zombies in South Carolina.

    According to South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson:
    We have zombies in South Carolina. Not only are they the “Walking Dead”, but somehow, they also stumble in to the polling places to vote. Therefore, it is crucial that we have zombies present their voter ID before they vote!

    South Carolina Governot, Nikki Haley said:
    We welcome all zombies to South Carolina as long as they are citizens of the United States and don’t belong to a union.

  3. Brad

    When walkers are around, it’s no time for eating. Just stay alert, stay loose, and keep a firm grip on a suitable weapon.

  4. Burl Burlingame

    This is how I got into “The Sopranos” — three seasons in one swell foop.

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