The latest form of addiction: TV binge watching

Sleepless students binge on Netflix series

By Chandra Smith


Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) appeared in an ad promoting their often binged series “Breaking Bad,” which ended last September.

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) appeared in an ad promoting their often binged series “Breaking Bad,” which ended last September.


Type the word “binge” into the Google search bar, and “binge watching” is the first term offered. Enter the phrase “binge watching” into the field, and the first few options are: “binge watching TV,” “binge watching Netflix,” “binge watching House of Cards,” or “binge watching Breaking Bad.”

Netflix has effectively inducted a new remote social event into our already media-saturated society. Like broadcast sports, holidays, and huge media events, we can participate in the activity solo, or in a group.

Previously a lonely activity tinged with guilt, binge watching is now socially acceptable, and in some cases expected (looking at you “Breaking Bad”). “According to a recent survey by Edelman, 88 percent of the people asked in a global study said they want to watch more than one episode of their favorite shows at a time,” says Dorothy Pomerantz for Forbes.

Student Jenni Dale recently watched two episodes of the hit show, which is unusual for her. “I usually watch three or four, but if it’s a half hour TV show, I’ll watch six. I’m pretty big on TV, so I could do like seven hours,” she says.

It’s a thing now, and no one is above a marathon television watching session. My family, classmates, teachers, coworkers, and my boss, all do it.

A couple weeks ago, fellow server Luke Thompson came into the restaurant where we work, clocked in, turned to me and said, “I didn’t sleep last night.” This is not unusual, and I expected him to continue on about the poker game he played, the handmade vodka he drank, or the underground lounge he went to.

“I watched every single episode of ‘True Detective’ at a friend’s house,” he said. I needed to ask him questions. I’m always interested to know about people’s binge experiences with television, since I’m pretty sure I invented the activity. Also, I know he doesn’t have HBO.

“Well, it was supposed to be a booty call,” he said. What it turned into though, was Thompson, taking in all existing episodes (seven, at the time) of one of the most talked about shows of the season.

When sex loses out to a television show, it’s my duty to vet the program myself. I started the series that night. Unfortunately, it is very good.

Laundry. “House of Cards.” Write an essay. This is your to-do list for tonight.

“TV binge watching is a pandemic that has afflicted many of the nation’s college students,” writes Jim Pagels for Slate. “They disappear into their dorm rooms for days at a time.”

College of Marin student Johnny McEvoy did not sleep the first night he discovered “Community.” Tom Graham, a journalism and media studies professor at COM and CCSF, has enjoyed up to seven hours of the deserving “Breaking Bad.”

“Even though I know better, I get caught up in the desire to know what happens next,” Graham says. As a professor, he may not see it as a positive influence on academic life.

Everyone is doing it. Even my mother, who started with “Lost,” and recently watched all of “Orange is the New Black” in just a couple days.

While some would malign the activity of binge watching, for others it is a helpful influence.

Server and student Samantha Banducci has found a healthy companion in shows such as “Mad Men” and “Orange is the New Black.”

“Otherwise I’m out getting into trouble, doing stuff I shouldn’t be doing,” she points out. Now, she just needs to worry about catching up with “Mad Men” before  the final season begins April 13.

David Carr, a media and culture columnist for the New York Times, describes our new predicament perfectly. “Television’s golden age is also a gilded cage, an always-on ecosystem of immense riches that leaves me feeling less like the master of my own universe, and more as if I am surrounded,” he said.

We are no longer binge watching simply because it feels good. We’re actually trying to get caught up on all of the good television currently available, and that’s adding pressure to our lives.

One can feel like the character Henry Bemis, of the “Time Enough at Last” episode of “The Twilight Zone.” All he wants is time enough to read his books, and he finally gets it after surviving a nuclear holocaust, along with a library.

“Books! Books! All the books I’ll need… Shelley. Shakespeare. Shaw… the very best thing of all, is there’s time now.”

If William Shakespeare were alive he would be a television writer, and if streaming Netflix had existed in 1959, Rod Serling might have written a very different episode.

The TV show “Portlandia” even has an episode called “One Moore Episode.” It is at once outlandish and a bit “too real.” In it, Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen watch themselves out of house and home, for having mistakenly cracked open their box-set series of the seriously addictive “Battlestar Galactica.”

The episode reminds me of a school friend who spent precious writing time catching up with the show, unable to stop watching “one more episode.” When the same friend bought  the entire “Sopranos” series on DVD, he had to watch every single one before saying, “Damn, now I can have my life back.”

The current quality of television, coupled with the ways in which we can watch it, has at once done away with the guilt of marathon sessions, and brought about the pressure keeping up.

It’s not your fault. Something changed when streaming video became an option. No longer furtively pushing disc after disc into a DVD player, losing sleep and daylight hours, we’ve each now been joined by legions of friends and fellow TV lovers in all professions and geographic locations. Now, it’s a thing.

Television has gotten smart and we’re not turning back. More is being written between the lines, and we’re not dumb to it. Instead of “checking out” and letting the show drive, we find ourselves wanting to compare and contrast the characters of Peggy Olson and Blair Waldorf.

There are books, and entire classes taught on the philosophy of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Duke University taught a class called “California Here We Come: The O.C. and the Self-Aware Culture of 21st Century America.” Mental Floss magazine reported on 25 college courses built around television, including: Middlebury College and “The Wire,” Northwestern and “Mad Men,” and Berkeley and “The Simpsons.”

It would be a mistake to blame the existence of our new pastime on a penchant for addiction or desire to avoid responsibility. It’s the gifted storytellers who are to blame. Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, and Rob Thomas: this is all your fault.

Several years ago Hulu ran ads with Alec Baldwin pointing out that the company will turn all our brains to mush. At the time I thought I was immune, having been so “selective” about what shows I spent all my waking and should-be-sleeping hours watching. Unfortunately, the number of shows I would like to be selective with has increased.

My sister who matches, and on some days surpasses my love for the binge, when asked how she remembers reacting to that Baldwin/Hulu commercial is more self-aware. “I was like yea,” she said, “my brain’s going to be mush.” Streaming Netlfix wasn’t even a glint in her eye at the time. “Oh Netflix, I remember when I didn’t even have Netflix… weird.”

No one is immune. Not my mother, not my professor, not even boss Patrick Bergseid. His first binge show was “Lost,” and he didn’t stop until he was through the first three seasons, and all caught up. “If it’s a good show you can’t watch just one,” he says.

Since then, he’s watched all of “Breaking Bad” like any good person, and multiple times. Like me, he’s gotten into what I call background binging—playing seasons of television in the background while carrying on with life like a productive person.

For Bergseid, the activity of binging started with “Lost” as a way to avoid the pain of returning his dog to his ex. It’s ended up though, as a real appreciation for a superbly written show, as with “Breaking Bad.”

My experience with binge watching started with the flu and season 3 of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” on VCR tapes. It grew through a summer on the couch with my little sister, “Friends,” and something like restless leg syndrome. I discovered the medicinal properties of it through “Scrubs” and a family crisis, and it fully blossomed with an undergraduate buddy, spring break, and the entire series of “Buffy.”

Like many TV lovers, Bergseid was a binge reader as a kid. “Big time. I still am. If I’m reading a book I like, it’s my first priority when I get home, and I don’t stop reading until I go to bed.”

Carr was a big reader as well. “I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy,” he says.

The self-flagellation can be stopped, because we’re all doing it together, and we’re doing it for good reason. Put down the whips. It’s cultural, it’s literary, and it’s good for folding laundry.

Water cooler chatter: Thompson, my coworker who watched the seven episodes in a row of  “True Detective,” came in the other day and checked in to see if I’d finally broken down and watched it yet. With some relief I told him I had, that I was starting to get caught up. In turn, I asked if he’d been able to see the final episode yet. He hadn’t.

“I don’t know if I’m going to,” he said, and in regards to the possibility of watching it at his friend’s house, “I don’t think I’m going to be invited back.” Hopefully, someone will take pity on the poor sot, and let him watch the season finale, no obligations.

While binge watching itself no longer necessarily contributes to our levels of shame and guilt, our lack of progress with certain shows might. I feel semi-terrible that I haven’t seen past episode 2 of  “Walking Dead,” or kept current with “The Good Wife.”

How could I have made it through “Friday Night Lights” two and a half times, and not yet started “American Horror Story,” “The Newsroom,” or “West Wing”?

The outside world misses me. I haven’t yet read a single Jane Austen novel. Like our friend Scarlett O’Hara though, I can’t think about that now. I’ll think about that tomorrow. When I’ve finally gotten current with “Mad Men.”


Portals to our gilded cages

List of marathon-worthy sites:


  • Netflix
  • Hulu
  • Amazon Instant Video
  • Google TV
  • Android and
  • iPhone apps
  • Cucirca
  • Couch Tuner
  • SideReel
  • Xfinity On Demand
  • Directv On Demand
  • U-verse On Demand
  • Apple TV
  • Chromecast
  • Roku
  • PlayStation
  • Wii
  • Xbox
  • HBO Go
  • Showtime Anytime
  • Watch TMC
  • Warner Archive Instant
  • TiVo

New to this? Here’s a list of shows to get you started:


  • Breaking Bad
  • Mad Men
  • Sons of Anarchy
  • True Detective
  • West Wing
  • Newsroom
  • The Good Wife
  • Homeland
  • The Walking Dead
  • American Horror Story
  • Luther
  • Orange is the New Black
  • Ally McBeal
  • My So-Called Life
  • Veronica Mars
  • Freaks and Geeks
  • The X-Files
  • Justified
  • Friday Night Lights
  • The Wire
  • Deadwood
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Firefly
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Weeds
  • Girls
  • Nurse Jackie
  • Parks and Recreation
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The New Girl
  • The Mindy Project
  • Louie
  • Arrested Development
  • 30 Rock
  • Community
  • Modern Family
  • The Office
  • House of Cards

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