By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007
Kurt Rieschick can't stop cheating on his boyfriend. He knows it's wrong, but sometimes David works odd hours. And Rieschick gets lonely. And those naughty red envelopes are so enticing.
So, occasionally Rieschick sneaks into the media room, with its flat-screen TV and surround sound, and proceeds to break a relationship commandment of the 21st century: Thou Shalt Not Netflix Without Me.
"Seriously, we're supposed to watch 'Buffy' together," says David Klimas, Rieschick's partner of nine years and a real estate agent in Washington. "But I'm still on Season 4, and Kurt's already on 5. I'm going, 'Oh my God! I can't believe what's happening!' but Kurt already knows Dawn is a ball of energy! It's so annoying."
Netflix (and Blockbuster online, premium cable on demand, TiVo, DVR) provides the modern Date Night for the young and the childless, for those with enough unclaimed time to plan evenings around watching movies. Couples in darkened living rooms across the country bond in their sweats, cultivating a shared appreciation for Park Chan-wook. The concept is easy: Unlimited DVDs! Delivered to your house! Waiting for you when you get home!
Waiting for you when you get home. There's the catch.
Because when a pert new envelope arrives, it begs to be opened. Because when it's opened, it might contain -- surprise! -- the brand-new fifth season of "Scrubs." Because your boyfriend works until 8 and it's only 5:30. You'll just watch one episode, you think. He never has to find out. But before you know it, you're having a nightly rendezvous with Zach Braff.
Adam Cuthbert, confessed Netflix cheater, blames his infidelities on his and his girlfriend's disparate Netflix drives: "She lacks stamina," he says. "I'm trying to work down the queue. She has no respect for that."
This is an old argument between Cuthbert and Brittny McCarthy. On their second date three years ago, they powered through the first season of "The West Wing" and decided to watch the entire series together. Before Cuthbert gave McCarthy a key to his Van Ness condo, he gave her something he viewed as even more momentous: the password to his Netflix account.
But then McCarthy, a higher-education lobbyist who moved in with Cuthbert two years ago, started to lose steam on the "West Wing" endeavor. She'd bump other movies ahead of the show in their queue. The series finale came and went, but the Cuthbert-McCarthy household was still stuck in Season 6, wondering whether Jimmy Smits would win the Democratic nomination.
Cuthbert, a photo editor, made an executive decision: Any non-"WW" discs that entered the building would be watched and returned, with or without McCarthy's knowledge, to clear the way for Martin Sheen.
As happens with all cheaters, Cuthbert was eventually trapped in his own web of lies when he referenced "Confetti," a movie he'd watched behind McCarthy's back. "Brittny got really icy, then said, 'Gosh, Adam, that sounds like a fun movie. When did you see that?' "
"It's not like I went all the way with 'Confetti,' " Cuthbert now pleads. "I didn't even watch the director's cut."
In other words, on the continuum of Netflix cheating, Cuthbert is Bill Clinton.
What does it signify, this cheating? Is it simply the fulfillment of a voyeuristic need? The desire for immediate gratification combined with -- Honey, I swear it meant nothing-- a lonely night when the cable's on the fritz and there's nothing to watch but reruns of "Yes, Dear"?
That's what Darryl Etter says. The clinical research assistant at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence sometimes sneaks DVDs out of the house before his girlfriend, Kelly Boyle, even knows they've arrived, watching them on his office computer. His work gets slow during the day, he says. He's not doing it to hurt Kelly. It's not even about her. If the movie's good, he'll happily watch it again that night. So what's the big deal?
The big deal, of course, is that watching something again is not the same as watching it with new eyes. The big deal is that "Norbit" is really only funny the first time, "Saw III" is really only scary the first time and once you know that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze, "The Usual Suspects" loses its luster. No one wants to be the half of the couple idiotically speculating aloud over the contents of the hatch on "Lost" ("Is it a worm hole? I bet it's a worm hole") when one's partner has already seen a Desmond flashback.
The big deal is Movie Virginity. With each movie, it can only be lost once, people, only once.
But the big, as in "symbolic," deal ensconced in Netflix cheating can vary from couple to couple.
"For me, it's about sacrifice," says Jamie Lewis, a Washington venture capitalist. "It hurts a little when [my partner] Matthew watches something we were supposed to watch together. If I think he'd want to see something, I'll wait, even if I was looking forward to it myself."
Interior designer Matthew Esposito's rationale that he only cheats when Lewis is out of town, that it doesn't make sense for shows to go unwatched just because his boyfriend isn't there to see them, doesn't fly with Lewis.
"It's not about being practical!" he says. "It's about the fact that it's important to me. Seriously, this is a metaphor for our relationship. If he wants something, I'll go to pretty far lengths to make it happen. It won't destroy him to not watch 'Heroes'!"
Cuthbert speculates that his girlfriend's annoyance has less to do with a passion for movies and more to do with a desire to share experiences: "It feels like I did something fun and fulfilling behind her back -- something she couldn't provide for me."
Self-gratification has always been a difficult area for couples to negotiate.
And the folks who work at Netflix are no help: When we phoned the nine-year-old company for guidance, one employee confided that she and her husband were in the process of a "Netflix divorce," separating their shared queue into two individual ones. She asked that we not use her name because "it's a sore spot in our marriage."
* * *
There is a commonly accepted hierarchy of Netflix cheating:
The most forgivable transgression is watching something that you erroneously (but honestly) believe your partner would have no interest in seeing. Example: "Premonition," when your spouse repeatedly hates on Sandra Bullock.
Slightly more despicable is watching a movie you know your partner would like, but for which no specific viewing plans have been made.
The highest level of cheating occurs when you knowingly and willfully break a specific and longstanding viewing agreement.
A special circle of hell is reserved for those who watch directors' cuts alone.
Beyond that, some couples have developed their own rules and clauses.
· The Zip code rule: Movies can be watched if one of the parties is out of town, especially if said travel lasts more than three days or falls on a weekend.
· The "Sixth Sense" rule: Any movie billed as having a surprise ending should not be watched sans partner. Especially if one can't keep one's mouth shut.
· The "Veronica Mars" rule: Any TV show in which one's understanding of the plot depends on viewing every episode should not be watched without one's partner. If one does watch solo, one must not return the DVD until both parties have completed it.
· The Don't Ask, Don't Tell rule: Indiscretions are tolerated, so long as the wronged party never learns of them. David Klimas and Kurt Rieschick have developed such a policy with certain shows. "If he ever watches 'Lost' without me," says Klimas, "he better have the decency to lie about it. The truth would be too devastating."
Devastating? Only if your definition of abject anguish involves missing out on a shirtless Matthew Fox. Which it might, but we're just sayin', in the grand scheme of relationships: Is skipping ahead a few DVDs into a series really cause for upset?
No, admits Jamie Lewis, it's not. But even while he knows this, he can't help but wish his boyfriend would Just. Save. The bleeping. Show. For when. They both. Can watch. "It would just be a small gesture, but it would show me that he gets it, that he can put me first."
So maybe it's not a big deal unless you take the Lewis stance, viewing TV-watching as a barometer of your relationship's health. In that case, there's something to be said for shared activities, shared discussions, shared plans for the future -- even if the future is only "tonight" and the plan is only to watch "Battlestar Galactica."