I’ve been writing about pop culture full time for five years and part time for seven, and during that time, I’ve noticed something strange. There is a growing consensus that television has finally come of age as a medium and that the huge profusion of new television shows includes many gems. But at the same time, many of the people I know who love television most have started to sound exhausted and stressed about their favorite medium.
At the very moment when TV ought to be most pleasurable, a sour note has come into the conversation, the idea that we’re somehow obligated to watch television. To a certain extent, this is an elite problem. I hear my critic friends confessing that, as networks begin sending us four, or five, or six episodes of a new series, or even the whole run, they feel some sort of professional responsibility to grind through the whole stack on the off chance an unpromising series suddenly finds its voice. And as outlets like Amazon and Netflix release whole seasons of shows at once, regular viewers seem to feel as though watching a single episode of “The Man in the High Castle” or “Daredevil” constitutes a binding contract and that they’re forced to continue all the way to the end even if they’re not much enjoying what they see. Sometimes, network heads explicitly encourage this thinking: Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos has said that he considered the whole first season of “Bloodline” that show’s pilot.
This may be a somewhat marginal problem. But as binging becomes the norm, I think it’s important to take a stand: Watching more of a television show you don’t like doesn’t automatically make you a more serious student of the medium or a more dedicated critic. You’re not obligated to find something you like in a show that isn’t doing enough to earn your continued attention. And it does a disservice to television to grade it on a curve like this: If this is TV’s golden age, shouldn’t our expectations be higher, not lower?
This sense of weary obligation started showing up in TV reviews earlier this year. In evaluating “Love,” Judd Apatow and Lesley Arfin’s glum new Netflix series, Slate television critic Willa Paskin used the series to make a point about the way that binge-watching can corrode our taste.
“Most binge-watchers know from experience that the available is as easy to devour as the excellent. As with eating and drinking all but the rankest stuff, the very act of guzzling stories is intrinsically pleasurable, so we do it more indiscriminately than it is flattering to admit,” Paskin argued. “We consume fresh bread and stale chips, good wine and flat soda, great television and time-passing junk. But the analogy between television and comestibles breaks down the more we imbibe: the more middling television one guzzles, the better it tastes, not worse.”
And HitFix’s TV critic, Alan Sepinwall, explicitly invoked Stockholm Syndrome in his review of “Billions,” Showtime’s new drama about hedge fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who is convinced that Axe’s fortune must be built on fraud.
“As I got to the end of the fourth of six episodes Showtime sent to critics, I found myself being drawn in by it all — not because the show had gotten any better at articulating why Chuck is risking his career to wage a cold war against New York’s most beloved rich guy (other than some mild resentment over Wendy working for Axe), but because I had watched so much of it already that I couldn’t help feeling curious about what happened next,” Sepinwall acknowledged. “It was TV drama Stockholm Syndrome: spend enough time with almost any show, and you start to see its point of view.”
As a critic with a wide-ranging purview, I’m freer than my friends and colleagues on the television beat to decide something simply isn’t for me, and to move on.
If I’m going to pan a show with significant ambitions in the early going, as I did with “Love” and HBO’s deeply terrible ’70s music drama “Vinyl,” I’ll watch more than one episode of it. But as outlets like Amazon and Netflix have tried to lure ordinary viewers into binging, and as conventional networks have started to give critics more and more screeners in the hopes we’ll judge shows on more than just their pilots, I find myself growing increasingly averse to this particular pop culture manifestation of the sunk cost fallacy. Rather than submitting myself to something that I either don’t like or that I think lacks artistic merit in the hopes I might come around, I’m moving on more quickly to more genuinely entertaining things.
I suspect there’s more than simple availability that keeps us binging on things we don’t really like.
The fragmentation of the television audience across an astonishing — and rising — number of scripted shows means that there’s always something out there that someone insists is the best thing on TV. If you’re a critic, these multiplying passions make it harder to speak with authority: If you write something off, someone will inevitably come back to you to ask whether you’ve continued to watch the show, hoping you’ll admit that you were wrong in the first place. If you’re simply a fan, you may have may more recommendations in your queue than you have hours in the day. If you give up rather than continuing to binge, be it on screeners or a new release, you’ll be plagued with a television-specific strain of that much-chronicled phenomenon, Fear of Missing Out.
But I think it’s time for us to give up on binging and try to recover our sense of what it is that we actually like about television. Rather than slogging through shows we’re not actually enjoying because someone insists they get good eventually, we should be more willing to listen to our own reactions, recognizing that it’s easier than ever to come back and get caught up on a show later should we change our minds. Rather than participating in the erosion of the episode format, one of the most important contributors to making television a genuinely distinct medium, we should insist that each hour or half-hour of television work well, even if it’s making a contribution to a larger whole.
In fact, we should resist the idea that we owe any television show anything. This glum sense of obligation sometimes feels as though it’s reversed the polarity between TV and its audience: Rather than it being incumbent on shows and the people who create them to keep an audience engaged, it’s now fans’ responsibilities to give shows our time and to grant them opportunities to improve that they might not actually have earned. This sense of duty may have grown out of fan campaigns to save low-rated shows audiences genuinely love. But it’s an impulse that sometimes feel as though it has been corrupted to squelch criticism, or to keep us shackled to programming that is not, in fact, very good.
It takes independence to shrug off network executives or fellow fans who insist that if you stick around for just one more episode, you’ll finally get what an artist is going for. But I’d argue that a more independent relationship with television might help us reconnect with what we actually love about TV in the first place.