Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Online TV addiction: Man, it’s hard to shake

AFP/GETTY IMAGES - In a handout picture released by TMC – NBC Universal, British actress Michelle Dockery playing Lady Mary Crawley and actor Dan Stevens in his role as Matthew Crawley pose on the set of hit British television series “Downton Abbey.”

This was the summer of irresponsible three-day benders.

A few times, it was 4 a.m. and we said yes to just one more episode, even though the kids would be up in a couple of hours and we knew we’d be zombies at work the next day. But we couldn’t stop.

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We just had to know whether “Downton Abbey’s” Matthew and Mary would at last be together.

We are binge watchers. The on-demand television culture — where you no longer wait a week for the next episode, it’s all just one click away — has spawned a new drug and a new addiction.

We lost days and weeks. The house looked bad. We looked bad. Hours and hours were squandered with “True Blood’s” Sookie Stackhouse and “The League’s” Rodney Ruxin.

(Sorry this is so late, boss. Blame Benedict Cumberbatch, the guy who stars in “Sherlock.”)

We swore off it, cold turkey. Then, I’d go on a solo bender and reel my husband back in with a new show. “Weeds,” I told him. “Suburban mom turned drug dealer. Awesome.” And we were off again.

Summer is almost over. We’ll quit in the fall, we’ve promised ourselves.

But what about Bill Clinton? The former president admitted that he watched the entire “House of Cards” season in three nights, series star Kevin Spacey said when he was on “Charlie Rose” recently.

Leave it to the former president to validate our addictions. Love him for that.

In the past, television, like bars, had a closing time. There was that moment, no matter how bad your insomnia was, when the relentless infomercials — Snuggies, Ginsu knives, Don Lapre — forced you to call it a night.

But with Netflix and other on-demand services, just one more click of that seductive, yellow box gives you more, more, more. The bar never closes now.

My husband and I were never big television watchers. Newspaper deadlines don’t allow us to join in polite society’s prime-time routines. We were too disorganized to TiVo. And we’d drive around with the rented movies in the car for a couple days, racking up late fees.

But now?

Binge watching has changed us and changed our relationship with the characters.

The other day, I swear, I grabbed my phone to text something really funny to Taystee. It was a split-second impulse before I realized that the last three days spent with Taystee were a fiction. She’s a character on the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.” She is not my friend.

Addiction blurs your reality.

A decade ago, two professors wrote an often-quoted piece in Scientific American arguing that television addiction is a form of substance abuse; your brain chemicals react when you get hooked. That was when the drug was somewhat controlled, before the dealers — Netflix, Hulu, SideReel, Amazon Prime — actually moved into your home.

What’s going on today? It’s like the television version of the crack epidemic.

“Yeah, well, we tend to forget that although we develop technology to make our lives easier and more comfortable, it has side effects that must be dealt with or things get out of control,” said Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at Claremont University in California and one of the authors of that article.

When I talked to the other author, Rutgers University’s Robert Kubey, about my addiction he was genuinely worried.

“I think you may be insane,” said the professor of journalism and media studies. “A little meshuga.”

He asked me if I binge alone on TV episodes. I told him I do occasionally, but mostly my husband and I do it together.

He tried to be optimistic about that. “It’s like some people like to drink with their drinking buddies, smoke with their smoking buddies or shoot up with their heroin buddies,” he said. “You have this experience in common now.”

It started, as all trends do, with our young people. College kids were the pioneer binge watchers.

“There is no experience quite comparable to getting a really good show and getting the box-set seasons lined up, locking your door, filling your freezer full of microwaveable food, turning off the telephone, turning out the lights and just going crazy,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, in a Post story about the college trend a few years back.

But, of course, youthful trends trickle up to us oldsters, and we wear them as well as we wear low-rise jeans.

I meet my colleagues at the Starbucks near the office, and they recognize the eye bags.

“ ‘Lost.’ Half of season three. You?” one of my fellow bingers might say.

“ ‘Breaking Bad.’ All of season one.”

And we’d drag ourselves back to the office, red-eye coffee with an extra shot of espresso in hand, swearing, vowing that we’re not going to do it again.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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