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Horsey on Hollywood

'Breaking Bad' bares binge-viewing obsession

October 02, 2013|By David Horsey
  • TV binge viewing is now a national obsession, says cartoonist and binge TV viewer David Horsey.
TV binge viewing is now a national obsession, says cartoonist and binge… (David Horsey/Los Angeles…)

America has shifted from a country in which TV viewers once had weekly appointments with favorite shows — sort of like a pre-scheduled session with a therapist — to a country in which followers of TV programs engage in all-night binges — sort of like a frat house party.

In the new world of television, there is no such thing as missing a show. If you were out to dinner on the night the final installment of “Breaking Bad” was shown, you can still find it days and weeks later. In fact, if you have never watched the exploits of Walter the meth king, but now want to see what all the fuss was about, you can access every single episode.

As a result, popular TV programs are being consumed, not like a sporting event that happens on a particular day at a particular time, but like books. In fact, shows such as “Mad Men” or “The Newsroom” or “Boardwalk Empire” are much more like Dickens novels than they are like the typical two-hour movie or the television fare of the past.

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Like a good novel, they have the luxury of time to develop intricate plots peopled with complex characters, they take unpredictable turns and, more often than not, they end when the story has been told, not when they have been canceled by network executives unhappy with the ratings.

Because of the novelistic nature of these new kinds of television stories, and because they can be accessed long after their first broadcast, many viewers do what they do with the best page-turners on the bookshelf: they gorge on the storytelling in marathon sessions running all day or late into the night.

One summer evening, my wife and I were sitting in the kitchen eating dinner. A laptop computer was perched nearby because my wife had been watching a vintage Julia Child cooking show to gather culinary tips. Something brought to mind the political drama “House of Cards,” which had gained such notoriety as an original production for Netflix. So, since the computer was handy, we called up the first episode.

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Close to an hour later, the show finished with us still sitting at the table in front of our dinner plates. A little clock popped up on the screen to let us know the next installment of “House of Cards” would commence in a few seconds. “What do you think?” I asked my wife.

Before I got an answer, the program began. And, of course, we settled in for more. That pattern repeated itself several times until we realized it was past midnight and we were still sitting in the kitchen, hunched in front of the computer screen.

A little crazy, yes, but the show was so good we really didn’t feel foolish for being sucked in. In fact, it was satisfying to not have to wait a week to get the next chapter in the story. We binged and we liked it.

My lovely bride adores almost anything the BBC sends to America. Lately, she’s been in one room gorging on whole seasons of “Doc Martin” while I’m in another room rewatching Season 1 of “Mad Men” as if it were a favorite novel that was worth a second read.

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Watching television is now often less akin to a tribe gathering around a fire to hear a story than it is like members of a family going to a library to check out books for themselves. In some ways this has made TV less of a communal experience than it used to be. In the past, shows of the stature of “Breaking Bad” would be seen by virtually everyone. Now, the audience is fractured a hundred ways.

I confess I have never seen “Breaking Bad.” Like a good novel, though, friends have recommended it to me. I’ve read the positive reviews and taken note of the Emmys the show has won. It is nice to know that one of these days I will be able take a look for myself.

Chances are, when I do I won’t just sample. It will be a glorious binge.


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