It’s not a coincidence that my first real foray into obsessive binge-watching happened the summer after I graduated college, during what were easily some of the weirdest, saddest, and most complicated months of my life. When I don’t know what to do with myself, I watch television; when I don’t know what to do with myself for 24 straight hours every day, I watch all of the television.
That first summer, two shows dominated my binge-watching agenda: CBS’ Dharma & Greg (1997-2002), a Chuck Lorre sitcom about a couple (Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson) who get married on their first date despite being polar opposites (he’s a lawyer, but she’s a hippie!); and CBS’ Early Edition (1996-2000), a drama starring Kyle Chandler as Gary Hobson, a man who gets tomorrow’s newspaper today and uses it to prevent tragic events from happening.
There wasn’t much rhyme or reason to why I chose these shows, though I suspect I watched Dharma & Greg because it so often comes up in conversations about terrible sitcoms, and the only thing I love more than good television is bad television. I’d even seen them before, here and there, in syndication. Neither was especially good — “memorable” highlights include Dharma using a giant fish to whack a block of ice while a strange woman gives birth in her bed, and Gary dramatically knocking a hot dog out of someone’s hand in a scene shot in slow motion. But both were programs that I found oddly calming and comforting, each offering a perfect way to block out the rest of the world.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d marathoned a television series. I had already watched (and rewatched, and rewatched, and rewatched) my DVDs of the first ten seasons of The Simpsons and the entirety of The X-Files. During college, I would rent seasons of TV from Netflix (notably NewsRadio and, for some terrible reason, 7th Heaven) and slowly work my way through them in between classes. I spent one Christmas break in an empty dorm room on a nearly deserted campus, watching the Six Feet Under box set and crying so hard at the finale that a confused resident advisor knocked on my door.
But that was different. That was slow, occasional, “I have an hour or two to kill” watching. The summer was more desperate: I felt like I needed those shows, and I would often forgo sleep to watch Kyle Chandler save his blind best friend from harm. (In one episode, a man steals her seeing eye dog; in another, two teens leave her stuck in an elevator in an abandoned building, the motivation basically being, “Eh, she’s blind.”) The simplistic explanation for this behavior is that I needed to immerse myself in something that wasn’t my own life, even if that distraction was just another argument revolving around Dharma being like this and Greg being like that.
There was a distinct loneliness to that summer. A few days after graduation I underwent the first of multiple painful surgeries attempting (and failing) to remove an unknown lump from my throat. As a result, I had to spend a few weeks alone in my childhood bedroom, away from literally all of my friends, watching four seasons of The O.C.in a painkiller haze. When I finally moved back to Long Island with the same friends I missed during my recovery, they were all either still in college or already working full-time jobs, leaving me to spend the vast majority of my time alone in an empty, too-big Levittown family house. All I had for company were the torrents on my computer (and the ridiculous Internet gigs I endured to make rent) and an overweight, lazy chihuahua who would loudly snore over whatever awful show I was watching. It was the most time I’d ever spent alone — but, occasionally, I preferred it. Without health insurance, I was out of therapy and off medication, and so I reverted to my earlier, socially withdrawn, depressive tendencies. Often, the thought of having a conversation with another human being would produce so much panic that I’d race to my bedroom whenever I heard a roommate’s car pull into the driveway.
Over the course of that summer, the distance between my life and my best friends’ only increased. They’d tell me about frustrating professors or obnoxious officemates and I’d respond with stories about TV’s fictional characters: “Today, an eight-year-old boy who Gary sort-of adopted infiltrated the government to conduct peace talks after they read tomorrow’s newspaper and became worried about a terrorist attack on a bar” (Season 3, Episode 4), I’d say. Or, “The cat that delivers the newspaper may have been integral in the John F. Kennedy assassination plot” (the details of this particular storyline are hazy in my memory; there was, unsurprisingly, a lot of alcohol involved this summer). Yet it sort of worked out. The shows I was watching gave me something to talk about, forced me into conversations when I wanted to retreat into myself, and provided an obsession to focus on. I ended up founding a TV website after copiously blogging about these shows on my own Tumblr (yes, Early Edition and Dharma and Greg are probably the reason I got into TV criticism — yikes). They kept me company.
You can almost track my moods based on my Netflix Recently Watched list or the always-increasing downloads folder on my hard drive. It’s eerie, actually, knowing that I had a good run in August 2009, based on the fact that I was casually rewatching my favorite Degrassi episodes, or that I sank low that December based on the way I dove headfirst into NCIS (really, Pilot?!) so I could fully immerse myself in a repetitive procedural drama designed to shut off my mind so I don’t get lost inside my own thoughts.
But what’s better is that I can tell when television shows pulled me out of a rut, even if just for a little while. The fall after my summer of Dharma & Greg and Early Edition, I binge-watched Criminal Minds because focusing on grisly crimes made everything in my life look like peaches in comparison — but it also made me foolishly look into graduate criminal justice programs in the hopes of becoming an FBI behavior profiler (partly because I honestly find the subject interesting, and partly because I wanted to think there were real FBI agents who looked like Matthew Gray Gubler). Nothing really came out of it — although I did receive calls from recruiters for about three years after — though the experience reminded me that I could still find new interests, still come up with plans for the future when I was stuck in circles in the present. It made me realize that I wasn’t completely dead in the water.
It also helped in smaller ways. Obsessively rewatching series like Skins and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia planted silly ideas in my head that forced me to be social and hang out with friends after days or weeks of not wanting to leave my room. I bought squirt guns with my roommates, to fill with vodka, like Cassie did; we had a party where we drank wine out of a soda can, like the Sunny gang.
Television allowed me to have people around on a screen when people weren’t around in real life —or when I didn’t want people around in real life. These voices — everyone from Gary Hobson to Manny Santos to Charlie Day — filled my quiet house and let me obsess over the ridiculous lives attached to them. Most importantly, though, they demanded no response from me. Instead, they allowed me to be as passive and introspective as I needed to be at that point. And they still do. A rough patch in the summer led me to Law and Order: SVU and Prison Break. My growing anxiety about what to do next in life currently has me seeking comfort (again) in Agents Scully and Mulder. I’ve mentally bookmarked ER for next month, when Seasonal Affective Disorder will almost certainly sock me in the stomach. Binge-watching isn’t exactly a substitute for therapy or medicine, but if it’s all I’ve got, it’ll often do the trick.