The Art and Musings of Felix Quinonez Jr.

Is There a Downside to Binge Watching?

Felix Quinonez Jr. 

Binge watching has become such a defining part of our collective viewing experience that it’s easy to forget that it’s a relatively new phenomenon. The practice gained popularity only within the last few years thanks to the rise of Netflix and other streaming services.

The term, binge-watch entered our collective societal vocabulary around 2013 and since then it has become so culturally ingrained that in 2015 the Collins English Dictionary chose “binge-watch” as the word of the year.

It’s actually not too surprising that binge watching has become so popular, so quickly since people love instant gratification. And for a lot of people it’s becoming the standard way to watch their favorite shows. Some people actually wait until the season is over so they can binge watch it, instead of watching it gradually as it airs.

There is no doubt that streaming services like Netflix played a big role in changing our viewing habits. Prior to that, we either had to watch the shows on the networks’ schedules. And if we discovered a show after the fact, catching a whole series in syndication would be a very long process. Another option would have been to buy the series on home video. But that would be costly. And a lot of people would hesitate to buy a box set of a show they never saw.

But these days, we have the entire libraries of most shows readily on hand. Because of this, people can finally watch shows they’ve always been meaning to check out. It’s also a great way to catch up on a show everyone is talking about between seasons and be up to speed before it returns to the air.

Binge watching has also reshaped how we measure a show’s commercial success. These days, ratings are not the only barometer of how well a show is doing. In 2013, Breaking Bad won the Emmy for “Best Drama.” And when the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan accepted the award, he was very forthcoming about the impact Netflix had on the show’s success. He has expressed his belief that without Netflix, Breaking Bad wouldn’t have gone past season two. And he also said that, “It’s a new era in television, and we’ve been very fortunate to reap the benefits.”

AMC's  Breaking Bad  Season 2 promo

AMC's Breaking Bad Season 2 promo

In the past, a show like Crazy Ex Girlfriend that barely averaged over 1 million viewers in its first season, and even less in the second, probably would have been cancelled at the first chance the network got. It would have been yet another critically adored series that didn’t make it past the first season because it failed to find an audience. But instead, because of its strong performance on Netflix, the show got to live on. And it was recently renewed for a third season which fans and critics can enjoy this coming fall.

But as is usually the case, there are two sides to every story. And as much as we love binge watching, there are some downsides to this phenomenon that is quickly changing our cultural viewing experience.

The fact is, we’re very social creatures and like with most things, we enjoy experiencing our TV shows with friends and family. But the act of binge watching tends to somewhat diminish the communal aspects of watching TV shows. It’s not that people can’t binge watch the same show but, rarely do people binge watch at the exact same pace.

It’s different than when people watch the same show over a regular season. Watching a TV show as it airs inspires a discussion after every episode. There’s opportunity to speculate about what’s going to happen next. But with binge watching you don’t really get to obsess and dissect an episode before going on to the next one. And the joy of seeing who guesses what will happen next is something that gets lost when everyone is binge watching on their own.

The sense of suspense is another casualty of binge watching. With the old way of watching TV shows, audiences are forced to wait until the next episode to find out what happens next. When you binge watch, there is no wait. Of course that is in some ways a great advantage. But there is also something special to finding out the outcome of a cliffhanger after having waited a week.

And at the end of the day, the fact is that binging allows you to go to the next episode too soon. Having some time between each episode gives you room to think about and absorb what you just saw. But instantly going to the next episode takes that away. In fact it can make the episodes blur together a bit. The wait between seasons can seem even tougher to deal with after you become accustomed to binge watching.

Another problem that arises from binge watching is the fact that, sometimes, it can make it harder to get emotionally invested since you are devoting less time. For example, I watched Lost after it had already ended. When the show debuted, I completely misunderstood what it was about. I thought it was just a simple survival show about people who crash landed on an island. And when I finally caught on that it was a lot more than that, it already felt like I was late to the party.

Lost  Promotional Image (ABC) 

Lost Promotional Image (ABC) 

Eventually I discovered it when the whole series was uploaded on Netflix. Like everyone else, I fell in love with the first season. To this day, I believe that Season one of Lost is about as close to perfection as any TV show has gotten. And as anyone who has seen Lost can attest, that love soon turned to frustration, anger and pretty much the whole spectrum of emotions as I watched its six seasons.

But I watched the entire show over the span of one summer. It was definitely a roller coaster but nothing like what audiences who watched it during its original run, over six years, enjoyed (endured?) I still remember being in college and hearing friends talk about it every week or going to bars to watch Lost with other fanatics.

And when it finally concluded, people loved it or hated it. But regardless of how they felt, they were very intense about it. On the other hand when I finally reached the ending, after having just seen a few episodes directly before it, there was something very anti-climactic about it. I actually kind of liked the ending. It wasn’t very original and it certainly didn’t make up for the disappointing seasons. It also didn’t reach the soaring emotional and narrative heights of the first season but it was sweet and moving. But it still left me thinking, “that’s it?” And part of that has to do with the fact that I remember how people reacted when the series originally ended. And after finally seeing it for myself, I found it hard to believe how it could inspire such dramatic reactions of any kind.

But the people, who saw Lost as it aired, had been following it for six years. For the fans that liked the ending, it was a cathartic event. And the ones who didn’t, well they wanted to riot and burn things down. I, on the other hand, saw it on my laptop during one summer and it was a very compressed and ultimately subdued version of the experience.  

It’s hard to argue with the fact that there is something undeniably satisfying about having all of our shows readily available to us. But by condensing our viewing habits we are losing some of the payoff, which can only come from waiting and anticipating. And this ultimately results in a less rewarding viewing experience.

Why Do Asshole Characters Make Such Great Protagonists?

Felix Quinonez Jr. 

Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust from LOVE Chris Geere, Aya Cash from You're the Worst

Gillian Jacobs, Paul Rust from LOVE Chris Geere, Aya Cash from You're the Worst

What is it about asshole protagonists that makes them so popular with audiences? You see them in movies, TV shows and just about everywhere. Sure, they make for entertaining, even endearing protagonists. But why do we become so engrossed by the lives of people we probably wouldn’t want to be friends with, or even know?

Netflix’s Love, starring Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs, is a perfect example. The show centers on not one but two assholes. Gus, (Paul Rust) one of the protagonists, is an on the surface “nice guy.” He continues a very long tradition of dorky guys who have way too hot girlfriends. But that probably comes from the fact that Rust is one of the series’ creators. And that in itself is another long tradition of creators using their shows as a sort of wish fulfillment.   

Love is about the tentative, often frustrating relationship between Gus and Mickey. (Gillian Jacobs) Their courtship moves in fits and starts. Every step forward equals two steps back. Their relationship can sometimes feel so toxic you have to wonder if seeing them end up together would even qualify as a happy ending.

Courtesy of Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

Gus, like many Apatow protagonists is a well intentioned, under achieving dork. But his nice guy veneer conceals a litany of self absorbed, narcissistic tendencies. And his incessant grand gestures are more often than not, self-serving ways to win over the favor of Mickey or co-workers, rather than genuinely kind acts.

And for someone who wears his supposed “niceness” as a sort of self-defining badge, he can be very inconsiderate, thoughtless and condescending. He also seems to go out of his way to ruin every great opportunity that happens to fall on his lap.     

Mickey is the special brand of asshole who is always ready to call out others on their shit while at the same time having a total blind spot for most of her own failings. To be fair she is trying to improve but she too often mistakes callousness for honesty. She is insensitive and obnoxious, at one point she smashes a $2,000 crystal bowl that belongs to the person Gus is dog sitting for. It makes for an entertaining scene but it’s such an asshole thing to do. And she’s one of those people who seem to think it’s somehow endearing to rummage through other people’s belongings. (Sometimes right in front of them.) They also share the habit of making terrible decisions.  

And they are disastrously oblivious to their surroundings. They treat everyone else like unwilling participants in their petty drama theater. In one instance they block people in at a gas station because they decide their relationship problems take precedence over others’ lives. And they seem genuinely surprised that people are annoyed by them. In another episode Mickey pretends to want to spend the day with her roommate Bertie. (Claudia O'Doherty) But she actually uses her as a cover to go stalk Gus at the studio where he works.     

Autumn De Wilde/FXX

Autumn De Wilde/FXX

Another show that centers on the lives of very unlikeable characters is You’re the Worst. Like Love, it deals with the relationship of two people with very toxic personalities who have serious psychological issues and are probably in need of some urgent attention. Jimmy (Chris Geere) is a writer and Gretchen (Aya Cash) is a PR executive. They are the stars of the show but pretty much the entire ensemble is lacking anything vaguely resembling human decency.     

Gretchen is a self destructive, incredibly insensitive person who at certain times resembles a spoiled 10 year old in an adult’s body. Jimmy on the other hand is no better, in fact he might be worse. He’s a completely self-entitled, arrogant prick. When we first meet Jimmy he is on a mission to destroy the wedding of his ex who rejected a proposal from him. And he constantly treats people like garbage.     

And the rest of the cast isn’t any better. Gretchen’s best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) is awful in too many ways to count. She is the picture of entitlement and lacks almost any trace of regard for others. And the awfulness seems to run in her family because her sister Becca (Janet Varney) is somehow just as bad, in her own ways. She is a petty and an all around horrible person. Her husband Vernon (Todd Robert Anderson) is one of those mentally stunted frat bros who are constantly trying to relive the “old days.” In fact, Edgar (Desmin Borges) is probably the only one of the regulars who isn’t aggressively terrible.       

Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs  Photograph by Suzanne Hanover / Netflix / Everett

Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs

Photograph by Suzanne Hanover / Netflix / Everett

But what is it about these ostensibly horrible people that makes us like them? Do we see ourselves in them? Perhaps being attracted to these messy characters comes from that fact that we’re somewhat messy in our own ways? Or is it something as simple as the fact that they say and do the things we secretly wished we could get away with?

Another reason could be that fact that beneath all of their flaws, they do have some redeeming qualities and are in their own various ways slouching towards some measure of self-improvement. And most audiences want some kind of payoff. Their flaws allow us to get emotionally invested and cheer as they better themselves or get frustrated at their bad decisions.

Of course a lot of it also has to do with the performances themselves. It’s hard to find anything bad about the casting of these shows. Gillian Jacobs, easily the MVP on Love, has a cool confidence. But at the same there is a vulnerability and darkness always peeking from beneath the surface. Paul Rust gives Gus a quiet, dorky sense of charm that, like his character, can grow on you. And even at his most tedious, you get the sense that he has generally good intentions.

Kether Donohue , Aya Cash, Chris Geere,  Desmin Borges  You're the Worst FXX

Kether Donohue, Aya Cash, Chris Geere, Desmin Borges You're the Worst FXX

And on You’re the Worst, Aya Cash is a comedic genius and often times heartbreakingly vulnerable. Chris Greer is almost begrudgingly charming. His grumpy and bitter demeanor hides a softer side.

But yet another reason could be that they are both really well written, smart shows that tackle their subject matters in honest ways. Love refuses to sugar coat the dating experience. It highlights the fact that sometimes love isn’t all that grand.

And You’re the Worst not only upends typical genre tropes but it also tackles some heavy topics like depression and PTSD. When Gretchen reveals her depression to Jimmy in one episode it’s a quietly heartbreaking moment. It’s an honest and brave depiction of depression. It’s also a great reminder why you care so much about a character who often times makes it very hard to do so.

In the end it’s hard to say why unlikable characters make for such entertaining stories or why we love them so much. Maybe there isn’t even a simple answer. But as long as they keep inspiring such great shows like these two, bring them on.