Reality Bites, or Why I Binge-Watch

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Sometimes real life sucks. Sometimes you leave a nice girl to move to California for new adventures, but when you get to California you realize that the adventures were just fine where you came from. And then, disappointed by where you’ve ended up, you fall into a rut that lasts for, oh, 18 months, and in that time your mom dies, and your heart is trampled by another girl, and you discover that you’re intolerant to foods like cake and pizza, and you wonder if there’s even a point to existing if you can’t eat cake or pizza, and you get kicked out of the house you’ve been living in so you move into a dingy single-room apartment that you suspect is slowly poisoning you, and then, on a Wednesday afternoon, you lose your job.

So for a good part of those 18 months you watch TV. A lot. And by “you,” I mean “me.” And by “me” I mean everyone attempting to abandon real life for an imaginary one that comes streaming over your laptop screen and is far more interesting than whatever you did today.

A selection of television shows I’ve recently watched (many, but not all, to completion): Breaking Bad, Girls, Mad Men, True Detective, Sherlock, The Wire, The West Wing, Game of Thrones, Lost, Downton Abbey, Battlestar Galactica, The Newsroom, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Veronica Mars, Bored to Death and Firefly. I don’t even own a TV. Granted, some of these are shows I saw before my devolution into unabashed binging. But in that year and a half, my idle bouts of television viewing tilted to full obsession, the apex marked by the several months I spent re-watching one season of the cult sci-fi classic Firefly during my lunch breaks.

I’m not disparaging television. I don’t think I’d be who I am today if I hadn’t fallen in love with the righteous political indignation of The West Wing, or spent sleepovers in the ‘90s watching Star Trek: The Original Series instead of, I don’t know, Madonna music videos or whatever kids were into those days. TV has evolved into an art form to rival cinema—it’s apparent by the number of reviews that mushroom over the internet after every new episode of Mad Men.

But I do question my motives. My most intense TV watching spells seem to coincide with periods of personal distress. I devoured much of The West Wing—the first time, at least—in the months I lived with my parents after college and worked at a daycare center. My dreams were riddled with screaming toddlers and fragments of Aaron Sorkin speeches. One day, I imagined, I’d be as witty and important and charismatic as Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett. And I’d have a staff to change childrens’ poopy diapers.

I share my enthusiasm for television with my best friend Liz. We lived in different cities during my latest existential crisis, but we’d chat on the phone for hours about things like Benedict Cumberbatch’s pea coat and the social politics of Veronica Mars. She says she watches TV to escape the stresses and indignities of daily life. She doesn’t enjoy Breaking Bad or The Wire because those shows are too grounded in reality, or at least in the ugly, unideal specter of a reality she’d rather avoid. Instead, after watching Sherlock, she became fixated on London, and the idea of London (accents! tea! intrigue!), and the idea of living in London (pea coats!), all the while stewing unhappily in San Francisco.

I understand that. Television, for people like us, ceases to be entertainment and becomes an ideal—one that twists cruelly into expectation. We expect, inanely, that our lives might somehow, someday be as noble and interesting as the ones on the screen. That we’ll live freely and unconstrained like Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity. That we’ll brave societal rejection stolidly like Veronica Mars. That everything will be better in London—or New York, or outer space. And if not, well, we’ll just watch more TV. At least that makes us feel better. It’s an anesthetic, an incantation. The tube casts such a powerful spell that we fall for its illusions even though we know that there’s nothing more to it than, as someone once said, wires and lights in a box.

I realized this while watching TV.

In the weeks after losing my job, I had plenty of free time. I’d stopped paying for my internet connection in order to save money (and, presumably, to stop watching so much TV), so I went to the local library to update my resume and look for jobs online. There I discovered a treasure trove of television. One DVD series caught my eye: Northern Exposure.

Northern Exposure hasn’t aged into the collective imagination like its ‘90s counterparts Friends or The Wonder Years, but it’s a charming, uplifting show that held out for a good six seasons. The series follows the misadventures of Joel Fleischman, a young doctor from New York who is unwittingly pressed into serving a rural Alaskan town in order to meet his student loan obligations. The characters, initially perceived by the urbane doc as little more than inbred bumpkins, turn out to be a remarkably cosmopolitan bunch. The town’s morning radio host, for example, regularly quotes from the likes of Jung and the Bhagavad Gita, and one teenage character, an aspiring filmmaker, happens to be pen pals with Woody Allen.

The show fulfills nearly every fantasy I’ve had of escaping to the Alaskan wilderness—the possibility of enlightenment included—and I watched the episodes in the kind of impenetrable trance previously reserved for marathoning Game of Thrones. At the library, I looked for seasonal cannery jobs in Alaska. I even filled out an application or two. Then, in episode six of season two, I was jolted back to reality.

The episode, titled “War and Peace,” features a renowned Russian opera singer who goes to the Alaskan town for an annual visit. He’s greeted warmly by the townspeople, with the exception of one character, a stoutly patriotic ex-astronaut with a deep disdain for all things Soviet. The old rivalry escalates like an arms race, culminating in a pistol duel between the Russian and the American.

Watching the episode, I was seduced by the camaraderie between the supposedly backward townspeople and their foreign guest. The banter, the booze, the idyllic sense of near perfection. Even more to look forward to in the Great White North!

But during the climactic duel scene, the episode takes a metaphysical twist. The entire cast steps out of character, breaking the fourth wall to have a candid—and ridiculous—discussion on the merits and follies of war.

In that moment the spell is broken, the sleight of hand revealed. I actually felt disappointed that my fantasy had been shattered. I’d been unable, or unwilling, to release myself from the show’s grip until it forcibly released me.

I mistook TV for reality not because I couldn’t tell the difference, but because I didn’t want to. It was simpler to imagine that things could be better. Meanwhile, I was having trouble making reality worthwhile. In the dark days of binging, I tended not to get much else done. After coming home from work and putting on an episode of a particularly good show I ended up feeling drained—too drained to read, to write, to exercise, to do much of anything other than put on another episode. And so, often, I did. It was easy, effortless. I felt as pathetic as Walter Mitty—but at least he was using his imagination to escape the everyday; I was letting others do the imagining for me.

Achieving anything in real life takes effort. To be free. To be brave. To move up, move out, derail yourself from an endless rut. To create a life that lives up to your expectations. A bit of advice from a dorm room poster: “If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV.”

But I don’t want to stop watching TV. I love it too much. Plus, I still haven’t seen any of Orange is the New Black. I can, however, reclaim my time, or at least my perspective. I’m on again to new adventures—real ones. I’ve moved to San Francisco. I’m out the rut, for now. (Also out of a job, but working on that.)

I’ve cut down on the binging. I’m writing creatively (albeit about TV) instead of just watching Girls and thinking about how cool it would be to write creatively. And I haven’t re-watched an episode of Firefly in a month.

There’s nothing wrong with television, or daydreaming, or loving other worlds. Sometimes real life sucks. But sometimes trying to escape it is worse.