The Pros and Cons of Pop Culture Binges

Oh, you liked that show/movie you watched a month ago? Too bad; it's gone now.

Oh, you liked that show/movie you watched a month ago? Too bad; it’s gone now.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news over the past few years, you may have noticed the pundits/anchors/news-type people discussing the recent-ish phenomenon of “binge-watching” on TV shows.  I’m not linking to any, but feel free to google “TV binging.” (I’m not sure how whether it’s spelled “binging” or “bingeing” as I’ve found both in use). I found articles written just a few days ago on the subject.

So, what is TV bing(e)ing? Well, according to my dictionary app, bing(e)ing is to:

indulge in an activity, esp. eating, to excess: some dieters say theycannot help binging on chocolate | (as noun binging) : her secret binging and vomiting.

I’ll assume you know what television is.

So, bing(e)ing on television basically involves indulging to excess in a TV show, usually through Netflix, but also through Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, DVD/Blu Ray, televised marathons (usually in syndication on cable), illegal downloads, etc.

Bing(e)ing on TV shows, is being widely debated. While many people do it, there seems to be some difference of opinion on whether or not this is the best way to watch TV. At least, there seems to be based on this screenshot from when I googled “TV binging”:

Well, it's either harmless or YOU NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW!!!!

Well, it’s either harmless or YOU NEED TO STOP RIGHT NOW!!!!

In fact, in a recent interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, David Tennant discussed the structure of his new crime drama wherein the entire season is focused on solving a single crime:

I think that’s the way television is sort of headed — I mean, the rise of the box set is something that’s changed the way we expect television to be, I think, in that audiences now have an appetite for longer forms … I’m sure that’s to do with the fact that you watch television, we can consume television in so many different ways. If we miss an episode because we weren’t in on a Wednesday night at 10 o’clock, it’s not the end of the world.

An interesting observation about binging is that it somewhat contradicts itself on its indication of the current human attention span. On the one hand, we no longer have the patience to wait a week or more to see what happens on our favorite shows. On the other hand, we’re able to sit through hours and hours of the same TV show in one sitting. I’m sure there are much more intelligent/qualified people who are doing research or have done research on this subject, but, for now, I just find the contradiction fascinating.

So, what role does binging play in fandom?

Well, before I answer that, I have a confession to make.

I binge all the time. I first watched the entirety of Star Trek: The Original Series in fewer than two weeks. Including the pilot, that’s 80 episodes. Similarly (though not, obviously, a TV show) I first read the Harry Potter series only a few years ago. And I did so in a month. I was so engrossed in those books, I even started thinking with a British accent. I did the same with Battlestar Galactica (2003) and the comic series Birds of Prey (Comixology is great for bing(e)ing, not so much for bank accounts). 

Every time I find a new fandom to indulge in, I go on a binge. The only time I can pretty much say I was in on a fandom from the beginning was with Avatar: The Last Airbender. Otherwise, I usually come into a fandom already in full swing, or gaining steam. And, when I get into a new fandom, I jump in with both feet.

I look up the history of the new object of my obsession on Wikipedia (and the fandom’s own Wiki because they all have them). I check out fan art and read fan fiction.  I learn as much as I can as fast as I can.

This factors into my last post where I discussed calling out “fake geeks” as some members of the fandom community are opposed to this method of integrating one’s self into a fandom. To some, you cannot be considered a true fan until you have spent a certain amount of time loving, studying, and obsessing over the subject. If you know who a character is because you looked him/her up on Wikipedia, it’s not the same as getting to know that character by living with him/her for years, learning about his/her life through small sprinkles of exposition…sprinkled (words are my life)…throughout sometimes decades of primary source material.

And I have to admit, there is some small sprinkle of truth in this argument. While I don’t believe in calling out or bullying people who learned what they have about a given fandom from Wikipedia, I do believe one has a  different experience (perhaps fundamentally so) becoming part of a fandom through bing(e)ing and learning the details of the primary material through secondary sources after all the television  episodes have been aired or all the books/comics have been published than those who experience the material as it’s being released.

So, let’s look at a few ways to compare and contrast the two experiences on a few different criteria.

First, let’s look at the issue of spoilers.

Snape killed Dumbledore. Also, River Song.

Okay, now that we got some obligatory references out of the way, let’s talk about spoilers. To me, there are two different extremes in attitudes toward spoilers with all other opinions falling somewhere in the middle.

On one extreme are those who fear and hate spoilers.

"I'm not listening"

“I’m not listening”

These are the people to whom revealing the ending of book/movie/TV show etc. is a fundamental betrayal of their trust. For some, it doesn’t matter how long ago the spoiler was revealed, they don’t want to know that Tyler Durden is actually–LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU LA LA LA LA!

On the other extreme are the people who seek out spoilers.

Some people just can’t bear not knowing what happens next, and they don’t want to wait to find out the traditional way. They delve into sites across the Internet looking for clues, hints, and out-right answers to what is coming next. Some turn to the back page of every book before they’ve finished reading it. Some of them take this need to know what’s coming next to the movies where they spend the entire film asking the person next to them what happens next.

Now, for those who like spoilers, bing(e)ing is probably the best way to go as they can  skip ahead at will. They don’t need to sit through bad/boring filler episodes if they don’t want to. They just need to hit the “next” button, and they’ve jumped ahead what may have been, for those watching show as it was released, weeks, months, or even years of time.

For those who dislike/hate spoilers, there are pros and cons to each method. If you’re watching a TV show or reading a book series as it’s being released, there are going to be fewer people who know what happens next and assume you do too. Thus, there are fewer people who know spoilers that might reveal them. On the other hand, if you miss an episode or are a slow reader, it can be difficult to avoid spoilers for recently released material. Just after new material in a fandom is released, everyone’s at the height of their excitement over the new revelations, and thus want to share it with everyone they can. (And very few people, in my experience, are good at avoiding revealing spoilers.) This means those who hate spoilers are going to have to isolate themselves for a while until either:

A) They watch/read the new material for themselves.

B) Everyone calms down and stops talking about what happened.

For those who binge and hate spoilers, avoiding those spoilers can also be tricky. On the one hand, because you’re watching the show/reading the series in one sitting, it’s easier to isolate oneself from ongoing fan discussions. Uninterrupted viewing also provides fewer opportunities to be spoiled. However, if you’ve waited until an entire season/series has been released to watch/read it, there will be many, many people who already know what happened. And, if you mention liking a show that you’re in the middle of bing(e)ing on without disclosing that’s what you’re doing, those people who know how it ends will be more likely to accidentally spoil the story for you because they assume you’re caught up.

Next, let’s take a look at the actual experience of watching a show.

Now, a phrase has been going around fandom that you’ll see pop up a lot when fans discuss deeply emotional moments.

A yes, “feels.” For whatever reason, when I wasn’t looking we decided to short hand, “I am emotionally distraught/happy over this and am experiencing intense emotion/strong feelings” to “having feels.”

I may have mentioned a time or two (or twenty) that people who are part of fandoms can be pretty passionate. We live with our favorite characters, feeling their pain and celebrating their triumphs (unless their happiness is due to a ship we don’t follow. Then we know they’re “happiness” is just a front for the pain deep within). We express these emotions by saying we have “so many feels right now, you guys,” and those feels are the rock on which the better fandoms are founded.

So, it’s time for another confession.

I cried like a baby for hours (and was then filled with a deep rage) after the last episode of Young Justice. Now, because that came out fairly recently, I won’t spoil what happened, but if you want to know what happened, you can watch this video:

I only got into the Young Justice fandom after the second season had already started, so I’m sure those who had been fans from the beginning were even more affected by what happened than I was, but, because the show had been on hiatus for so long, not only was I caught up by the time the latter half of the second season started, but I was already deeply invested in the show when the last few episodes aired, having loved these characters for months before seeing this finale. Additionally, because I watched the finale when it originally aired on the East Coast, I was one of the first people to see what happened. I had no warning or buffer. And I suffered.

I don’t think I would have felt so devastated if I had binged the entire series in a few days. I would have been sad, but I wouldn’t have been shocked or felt betrayed or like my heart had been ripped out and stomped on.

I’m confident in that prediction, because of my experiences bing(e)ing on Battlestar Galactica (2003) and Harry Potter. There were many sudden deaths and plot twists in the remake of BSG and in Harry Potter, but none of them shocked me, or made me nearly as emotional as that Young Justice finale. There are several reasons why.

First, I knew the show had its chance to tell as complete a story as it was going to. Young Justice, however, was prematurely cancelled by either Warner Brothers, Cartoon Network, DC Comics, or some combination of the three when it clearly had more of a story to tell. Now, this wasn’t as bad as the end of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which ended on a massive cliff-hanger that essentially wiped all Terminator continuity out of the picture. Still, at least people who binge on that the Sarah Connor Chronicles now (like I did) don’t have to suffer the cruelty of false hope. Fans and creators linked to Young Justice haven’t given up hope that maybe, just maybe, the show will be renewed or get a direct-to-DVD/iTunes movie, and that hope just adds to the swirling mass of emotions still running through the fandom.

With BSG, however, I knew the show had a full-on series finale. I also knew Harry and company not only had a finale, but an epilogue. So, the stakes were somewhat smaller to me personally. I knew, somehow, everything would be resolved. The resolution may not be what I wanted, but I knew at least most of the plot threads will be wrapped up in some way.

Spoilers also tend to suck the tension out of a story. While I didn’t know what would happen in great detail, I already knew some details of what was coming when I sat down to watch BSG and read Harry Potter. Some details are just hard to avoid even if you don’t seek out spoilers (see “Snape kills Dumbledore” and, more recently, “Red Wedding”). So, if you have even a vague idea of what’s going to happen next on a show or in a book, it’s a little hard to be get too emotionally invested in what’s going on at the time.

Finally, when it comes to “feels” and binging, I find I have many more “feels” when I’ve had time to speculate for myself what would happen next and lived with that speculation longer. I might have spent months, if not years, imagining two characters happily married and loving each other into old age only for one or both of them to be killed off. And, even though I tell myself the real version is going to be different, my expectations have now become based around this fictional narrative (which, for myself and others, often comes out in the form of fan fiction). So, when a show/book does something that radically deviates from my personal expectations/wishes for how a story will go, I feel much more emotionally wrought by the results.

The last way in which I will compare and contrast binging vs not is how bing(e)ing effects the bedrock of fandom: community.

Let’s go back to the definition of fandom according to the professor of all that must be professed, Wikipedia:

Fandom (consisting of fan [fanatic] plus the suffix -dom, as in kingdomfreedom, etc.) is a term used to refer to a subculture composed of fans characterized by a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie with others who share a common interest.

Fandom is defined as being more than one person’s personal experience with a particular interest. Community is essential. And, no matter how quickly you catch up, on a fandom through binging, your relationship to the rest of the fandom will likely be slightly or massively different from those who have come before you.

I saw this a bit in Doug Walker’s  (AKA The Nostalgia Critic) vlogs as he watched the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender from beginning to end. It was interesting seeing how his viewing experience differed from that of people who watched the show as it came out who dealt with debates, a massive shipping war, and hiatuses between the seasons which helped the debates and shipping war thrive as more time was allowed for speculation and forming teams.

Likewise, I never got to experience the full strength, both for good and ill, of the Harry Potter fandom. Therefore, my experience with the books is different from most people my age who grew up connected to this fandom. I can only get the experience second hand through friends who were deep into that fandom and through sources like Harry a History by Melissa Anelli. I was still enough into the fandom to be deeply moved by the last two movies (which came out after I had read the series), but I’ll never be as emotionally linked to those books as my fellow millenials who see Harry and the community that was formed around him as an essential, inextricable force in their lives.

I’m not saying one should never binge in order to join a fandom. As I stated above, I’ve done this multiple times. It’s a great way to get up to speed quickly so you can get in on the conversation.

I’m won’t to make a definitive statement because I don’t think anyone can really sit on high and judge whether or not binging on popular culture is right for any individual person. We all approach fandoms from different angles, and no one should be judged for the way in which they fell in love with a TV show or book series.

There are losses and gains with each method, but, personally, I don’t feel any less love for fandoms I entered through binging, nor do I appreciate those shows any less. In fact, sometimes coming from the perspective of looking at the completed work can give one a better appreciation of the work as a whole, as it’s easier to see what connections were established when, and how the tone or themes of the work changed as the work evolved–things which can sometimes be missed by people actively engaged with the fandom during these transitional periods. And, sometimes, having a community of people suffering through hiatuses and plot twists together can take the experience of fandom to a whole different level.

There are different journeys through fandom, and each will yield slightly different results, but that doesn’t make one way inherently better.

So, if that’s your thing, binge on, my friends. (Just, you know, try to occasionally get out of the house…or stand up).




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Filed under About Fandom, Fandom and Me (or should it be "I")?

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