Why I'm Officially Done With Binge-Watching

Photo: Steven Errico/Getty.
On the final evening of 2015, I found myself sitting around a big dining table in Palm Springs, looking back with old friends and new on the year that was coming to a close. We talked about the books we had read and the travels we'd taken, the love we'd found and the loved ones some of us had lost. We rifled through all these memories and plucked the best ones from the bunch for reflection. Between the eight of us, we covered a lot of ground.

One thing that never came up, though? All the television we watched over the last 12 months, which — given the pop cultural immersion of the gathered group — I'm guessing amounts to a substantial number of hours spent Netflix and chilling.

My Palm Springs gang certainly aren't the only people who likely logged some serious TV time last year. Freaky fact: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Americans ages 15 and older spend almost three hours a day in front of the boob tube, according to survey results released last summer. I believe it: While my daily TV intake is considerably lower than that, I have been known to while away entire weekends immersed in a new show. I'm sure I'm holding up my end of the American average.

And why shouldn't I? I've passingly thought to myself while queuing up the next episode of The Man in the High Castle. We're smack dab in the midst of a small-screen renaissance. TV series have become so highbrow, so literary, so exquisitely executed, that it's not hard to be convinced that, say, watching all of Transparent's second season in 72 hours is a requirement for being an informed participant in the grander trans conversation. (That's also the reason I started to watch I Am Cait. But when it became clear that it was going to be a dud, I ghosted.)

But even though I thoroughly enjoy a good binge-watch, I also know that camping out for hours at a time often lands me in a funk. There's a decent amount of data showing that it doesn't have a positive impact on any of our brains or our bodies, but I'm acutely aware of how sluggish and mentally fogged up I feel after a TV marathon.

The truth is, sometimes it's just easier to invest yourself in the arcs of story lines than to actually face down your own life.

On top of that, the amount of television I'm watching is a pretty clear barometer of where I'm at emotionally. Dr. Carole Berman, MD, a Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist who specializes in the impact of media on our minds, has some provocative thoughts on the relationship between too much television and mental health. "The viewer is trying to escape life by committing to countless hours of holing up with his TV and hiding," she wrote to me in an email. "Once these hours have been lost in a haze of sleepless isolation...it is even harder to face real life."

Reading those words, I immediately recognized that I often binge-watch in that way — to avoid whatever else is going on in my world. In 2015 alone, I revisited four series I've seen many times over: The Sopranos, Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Sex and the City. These days, I can admit that I was in part just trying to escape from the pain of losing my dad in June, and revisiting shows I already knew required little to no energy on my part: I could just zone out and halfheartedly follow along.

The truth is, sometimes it's just easier to invest yourself in the arcs of story lines than to actually face down your own life. Even when conflicts don't get wrapped up in a neat little bow, at least TV problems stay at a safe distance.

But on the other hand, that means so much of the good, cathartic stuff stays within the screen, too. In other words: While I definitely was happy to see Don Draper find his om place on Mad Men's series finale last year, that warm fuzzy feeling in my heart faded mere minutes after the episode ended. For me, there is no lasting high. The buzz I get from television is ephemeral, dissipating as soon as I switch off the monitor.

Which isn't to say that television (or binge-watching, for that matter) doesn't have the potential to make a viewer uncover some real-life truth or triumph. I remember the first time I watched the first season of Californication from beginning to end over a weekend in college. It inspired me: to move to Los Angeles, to start writing, to let just a little bit of recklessness slip into an otherwise ordinary day.

But what I have come to realize is that to appreciate what I'm watching — to really dig in, register, and enjoy it — I have to be in the right frame of mind. I spent a lot of time in 2015 avoiding painful things by watching television, when I should have been tuning in because it was truly something I felt like doing.

Which brings me back to my New Year's resolutions and reflections: In the early days of January, it seemed bizarre that none of the award-winning television I spent so many hours watching during 2015 came up in my end-of-year recap, simply because of the sheer amount of time I had committed to TV over the last 12 months. I don't want to do a repeat of that at the end of this year, so I've made a decision.

From here on out, I'm done binge-watching. I'll still be tuning into my favorite shows, just fewer of them, more mindfully, and in much shorter intervals. And I won't promise that, every once in awhile, a Saturday afternoon packed with a couple hours of catch-up won't sneak in. But next New Year's Eve, when I'm looking back on 2016, I want to feel good about how I divvied up my hours over the past 365 days — and to know that I wasn't just watching, I was enjoying it all and truly paying attention.


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