Let’s say I was given a choice: either I give up all the movies in my collection or I say goodbye to all the box sets I’ve got. Which do I let go of? The Criterion disks I’ve amassed since I first discovered the Collection would make this a difficult choice, but in the end I think I would want to hang on to the series I’ve got. The thought of not having constant and (nearly) instant access to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, The Sopranos, as well as some of the later additions such as Treme or Hannibal is arguably worse than suddenly being bereft of the many, many films filling the shelves of the many, many Billy bookcases that we have accrued.
While I am very much a series junkie, though, I am not much of a binge watcher. I faintly remember watching most of Spaced one weekend when I was ill, and I think I saw the first season of 24 pretty much in real time – well, as real as the series’ use of real time, though with more actual bathroom breaks. I have definitely watched episodes of Breaking Bad and wanted to know immediately what happens next, but all in all I find that bingeing on fiction is oddly similar to that time when I was 10 years old and ate all my Easter bunnies within two hours or so. (It was years before I’d touch another chocolate bunny.) While it’s going on, mainlining good TV is moreish, there’s a feverish excitement to it – but afterwards my brain always feels bloated, empty and faintly nauseous.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I never really watched much more 24 – well, I did see the second season, but Kim Bauer’s “Walking with Mountain Lions” episodes finished off any interest I had in Who I Tortured on my Hols. Mainly, however, I feel that binge watching makes it much more likely that I get tired of the things I dislike about a series. Take Daredevil, of which we’re currently watching the second season: it’s exciting, well produced, enjoyable Marvel fare, but it is also repetitive. We’ve only just seen the second episode of the season, but I already catch myself glancing at my watch when everyone’s favourite Catholic ninja beats up another bunch of ne’er-do-wells. The series reminds me of Buffy spin-off Angel in a number of ways, and the limited appeal of fighting scenes is perhaps the foremost of these: the less a fight is about characterisation, the less it holds my interest. I want to know what happens next with Matt, Foggy and Karen – but, please, give me a few days off before another bout of fisticuffs!
It’s not just TV, by the way: on a seven-hour train trip home after a work event, I spent much of that time listening to the BBC radio adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, not one of Gaiman’s best and possibly the one that sticks closest to the Gaiman tropes, but a fun urban fantasy nevertheless. The adaptation’s enjoyable, but at least for me it didn’t hold up all that well to bingeing. Listening to all of it pretty much in one go highlighted for me how important a factor time is when it comes to my enjoyment of longform fiction: I quickly become engaged in a well-told story, but this engagement is relatively shallow, unless you add time. In between instalments, I think about the characters, what they’ve done, what they’ve said, how it all fits together. I come up with theories on what happens next or why the protagonist acted the way she did. I find that my mind’s occupied with the world of the story even when I’m not conscious of it; I might sit in a meeting, and suddenly my brain goes, “Oh, so that‘s why he gave her that look…!”
Of course this kind of engagement doesn’t happen with every story, and chances are I would’ve tired of the Jack Baueriad even if I hadn’t binged on season 1. Some stories pull me in, some don’t. The best, though, don’t need to stimulate me with frequent helpings of What Happens Next – because there’s so much else there that is interesting. Ironically, it’s when I don’t binge that I’m more likely not just to visit these fictional words – but for part of my imagination to live there more permanently.