Binge-watching earns its appeal because it is both pleasantly mind-numbing and absurdly convenient. Unfortunately, though, even the most laid-back of all weekend plans belies a dark, stressful underbelly. Choosing the right show to get started on can be a paralyzing decision.
There are the recent classics you’re dying to see, so you can finally feel like you belong in 2015, like The Wire and Friday Night Lights. But burning through a drama rapid-fire isn’t necessarily fun. The episodes are long and emotionally draining. The last thing you want is for all of the storylines to blend together, to the point where a month later you can’t even recall what ended up happening to Matt Saracen. Sitcoms, on the other hand, are gloriously short and punchy. But many of the ones worth watching have a daunting number of seasons to tackle and in-jokes to follow.
There’s a perfect, unexpected binge-watch alternative hiding in plain sight: SpongeBob SquarePants. I know, I know, but hear me out. Season One is streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s the ultimate low-pressure commitment. Each 24-minute episode features two distinct stories. Take one night, maybe devise a drinking game with some friends, and then move on. Unless you’d rather keep plugging away, which is fine, because Seasons Two, Seven and Eight are also streaming. Season Nine is premiering live (yes, the show is still running) and there’s even a musical in the works.
The longest-running Nicktoon makes for an ideal binge-watch because it offers a lighthearted, funny and nostalgic break from adult-centric programming. Its title character is optimistic, sometimes relentlessly so, but without the nagging sense of self-seriousness that renders similar characters in other shows unwatchable. SpongeBob is earnest, and earnest people are, by turns, sweet and aggravating, a point that deftly drives much of the show’s conflict.
Still, SpongeBob and his band of goofball buddies don’t feel pigeonholed into typical cartoon tropes. They bring all of the slapstick and puns you’d expect from a children’s cartoon, but these shenanigans also come with a racy edge and more than their fare share of sly pop culture nods. There’s a warm relatability to the run’s most memorable episodes, which, like most strong comedic efforts, revolve around the simplest of ideas: wanting so badly to impress your frenemies, feeling homesick, or jeopardizing your job with a big mistake, to name a few.
Through it all, SpongeBob is as kind as it is sharp, even to its villains and curmudgeons. Take the Krusty Krab pizza delivery. SpongeBob and Squidward spend much of the time lost and arguing about whether to give up and eat the pizza themselves. Squidward is impatient and manipulative, but SpongeBob won’t compromise his work ethic. By episode’s end, though, they’re on the same team, and we feel bad for the pair. It’s Squidward who has the nerve to stand up to a rude customer. He’s a tired, hungry hero we can empathize with, if only for a moment.
The beauty of SpongeBob isn’t just its foolish, compassionate charm. It’s also the immediacy of its impact. With most shows, premiere seasons are a chore to muddle through. The characters, whose quirks and motivations are still being ironed out, can feel like a first draft of what’s to come. It’s hard to remember now, but SpongeBob’s 1999 debut season actually saw many of the series’ iconic moments. One defining feature of the show is its silly musical bits, and Season One features the motherlode, with little ditties about F.U.N., ripped pants and yes, Krusty Krab pizza. There’s no expectation that you pay dues to SpongeBob by suffering through drivel on your way to having fun.
Watching the show is a good exercise in consuming pop culture exclusively because you feel like it. It’s not like the pressing need to know how Mad Men ended before walking into work Monday morning, or the urge to show you’re the kind of person who’s always game to live-tweet The Bachelor with friends. No—watching SpongeBob is about giving your evening over to whimsy and the delight of childhood, without looking back.
In spite of what you may have heard about the most binge-worthy TV shows, there’s just no better company on a Saturday night than an overeager sea sponge, a dim-witted starfish and a pantsless cephalopod. At the very least, reconnecting with them would make for a good refresher on the treasure trove of SpongeBob memes out there. You’ve got nothing to lose by shirking, just for one night, the burden of high-brow TV and the attention it demands. So get binging.
Julie Kliegman is the weekend editor for TheWeek.com and a freelance journalist based in New York. She’s written for publications including BuzzFeed, Vox, Mental Floss, PolitiFact and the Tampa Bay Times. Tweet her your favorite SpongeBob GIF.