The Big Gulp: How Did "Bingeing" Become About TV?


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Until the advent of Netflix, Roku, On Demand, Apple TV, and all the gateways to stuffing yourself in one or two sittings at the buffet of passive entertainment, bingeing was a word reserved, in much more appropriately solemn tones, for alcoholic excesses and for the compulsions of those (mostly women) with disabling eating disorders who consumed large quantities of forbidden foods (sometimes rescued from the garbage), ate till they were sick, and then made themselves sicker. The real dessert was often a purge, behind a bathroom door, water running; necessary, shameful, and secret. Air sprayed with vanilla freshener and all done….until the next time…a painful cycle.

But now “bingeing” doesn’t always refer to food or substances. The quality of television drama has gotten so impressively good, so relentlessly compelling, so accomplished and well-produced, that the industry has created a market, a drug source, and a seemingly unending stream of new treats that are authorized, endorsed, and out in the light! “Binge-worthy!” “You won’t be able to stop watching!”

A great bit on “Portlandia” (a witty show with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisten which I’ve binged on) shows a couple tentatively checking out one episode of “Battlestar Galactica.” At first they’re sitting upright, fresh-faced and hopeful. They have lives. Pretty soon, food’s being delivered, they’ve quit their jobs, they look sick, and they’re slouching in the same clothes day after day. “Just one more?” one will plead weakly. When the supply runs out, they track down the writer and demand more episodes.

I’m an equal-opportunity binger. I’ve gorged myself on British period dramas, Australian epics, crime thrillers with the sad detectives, women fighting their way up in the FBI, adaptations of Dickens, and a special favorite: any post-apocalyptical examination of how people behave after it’s all over. Who leads? Who caves? How are we going to re-connect the electricity? And what about the effect on the community?”

I’m fresh from an “Orange is the New Black” immersion. I was home sick for a bit last week, so I had double-permission. Fall down in front of the TV in your pajamas, and persuade yourself that there is a healing effect. Nothing is required of you. You’re receptive like a flower. Huddle under a blanket even in summer. Take breaks for kitchen exploration, and keep well-hydrated. Dogs spread out beside you, looking glassy-eyed and sickly? Nah! They love just being near you. And they love it when you’re sitting (or laying) down.

I wasn’t new to the side effects of binge-watching (a spongy feeling when you get up and walk, a stale, useless crust that begins to form around your edges, the gradual wonder about self-esteem, etc.), but this time I noticed some new ones. First of all, I began to feel that the actors in OITNB were real people. It seemed that somewhere there must be a Litchfield prison where I could enter and see them all, eating in the lunch room, laying on their cots in their cubicles, striding naked through the bathrooms. As I fell asleep at night, little bits of dialogue revisited me, and I found myself thinking about their personalities. I didn’t really like Piper this season; she seemed so hard and manipulative. Or maybe she always was? I wanted Diya to keep her baby, no, give up her baby, no keep her baby, no….

Of course this is a first-world, luxury problem. That’s a given. I just think we need to stop for a moment, and notice how easily, how rapidly this phenomenon has permeated the culture. It’s yet another indication of our growing inability to WAIT for anything. Fast food doesn’t seem so fast anymore; it can actually seem that those fries are taking one or two minutes two long. Email? Prehistoric; takes too long. Actual, person-to-person telephone call? Too arduous; might have to engage. The younger generations have almost had it with texting. “I wrote him, and like, he didn’t text back right away, so I thought, I always text him back right away, so what was up? And then he texted, and I thought, well, maybe this relationship is not equal. I want someone who will text me back immediately.”

Does this suggest a new category for dating profiles? “Wanted: honest, fun-loving, creative, and will respond to my texts immediately.”

It’s “The Big Gulp.” Great new dramatic series with finely drawn characters, plot twists, and grand themes? Swallow giant, gel-coated capsule with full glass of water, and you’re done! You’ve finished the last Fig Newton in the box, you’ve struck the last match, and you can recycle all the wrappers. You’re full. You’re stuffed.

For now.

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