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Actually, There’s a Difference Between “Binge Watchers” and “Couch Potatoes”

Over at Slate, television critic Willa Paskin opines that really, “binge-watching” is just the way the gentrified classes justify their experiments in couch-potato-ing.

Since my youth, the act of gorging on episodes of a serialized television shows like so many pita chips has undergone a makeover: It is now the culturally sanctioned activity of high-achieving, culturally literate adults who, as in the infamous Portlandia sketch, occasionally permit themselves to forgo showers and fresh air to watch TV all day and night long.

In part, she’s right about this: it’s funny to me that my college friends, who used to make fun of me when we were in college for having a mild awareness of television, now all report back on watching various shows. Sometimes, because it’s my job now to be aware of what’s on, they’ll even ask me for advice. My inner Wicked Witch of the West always cackles with satisfaction when this happens, for the record.

But I think that the distinction between couch-potatoing and binge-watching is still alive and well, for two interrelated reasons. I identify them below, because I think it’s important that we maintain the purity of each art on its own, and that requires a certain degree of intellectual rigor. Hence:

1. Crucial to the couch-potato mindset was the total indifference to whatever happened to be on. It’s increasingly hard to remember this in an age of streaming media, but it once wasn’t possible to simply wake up in the morning and think to yourself: you know what, I am going to just pig out on some Intervention misery today. In the past, you might have gotten sucked in by, say, the TBS Sunday morning movie lineup. You might have enjoyed the Law & Order marathon you just happened to flick over to while mindlessly thumbing the channel-changer (or remote, or in my parents’ sometime usage, the “clicker”) but it wasn’t strictly necessary that you do so. All you needed was some kind of hook — a guest-star bit by, say, a pre-Six Feet Under Lauren Ambrose, bearing a weird haircut — and then you were off.

Binge-watchers, by contrast, tend to choose their viewing material based on its cultural cachet. The original binge-watch, in my anecdata-filled estimation, was probably The Wire. It was a show that had not-so-great ratings when it was on, but then the hipster-literati set heard about it, and suddenly, about a year or so after the last season, I kept running into people who wanted to discuss it. I still do.

2. Equally crucial to the couch-potato mindset is the lack of retention of what you saw while engaging in the activity. So, like Paskin, I tend to actually binge-watch other kinds of shows as well, now that they’re available on streaming media. I managed to swallow all the seasons of The Hills in a week a few years ago. (In my defense, I was in graduate school, and required some reminder that the rest of the world still existed.) This felt somewhat like couch-potatoing, insofar as I still can’t tell you very much about what happened as I watched it. It was sort of like (what I hear) doing heroin is like: it’s not so much that you are having fun or even having any emotional experience at all, more that you can’t stop doing it.

There’s some relaxation inherent in that which eludes the typical binge-watching experience. When I binge-watch, I usually do have to pay attention, absorb plot developments, retain character information. Sure, it’s not the kind of attention I have to pay to some long, boring new novel, but it still involves something more than the vegetative television experience usually requires. Episode 8 of Season 4 of The Sopranos, say, doesn’t make much sense on its own. This is not something one can say of The Hills, say, whose “genius” (and I use that word advisedly) resides chiefly in its ephemerality, its airiness.

And in the end I guess that’s what really distinguishes a binge-watcher from a couch-potato: both escapists, they’re each looking to get somewhere slightly different. The binge-watcher wants to escape into a real story, one he has chosen for himself, but not one which lets him rest, exactly. And that’s probably why those shows appeal to the New York Review of Books-type reader, who believes himself an aficionado of literature, which, most literary types believe, is supposed to stay with you, linger in the mind, not let you relax.

Not so for the couch potato. And we don’t have to be condescending about that, incidentally. The couch potato, after all, is more of a Zen Buddhist about it all than the binge-watcher. “If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free,” as Thích Nhất Hạnh has written. And well, you know as well as I do: all those hours you spent watching Friends repeat after Frasier repeat in your youth certainly did get away from you. As did my lost days in The Hills.

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