by Josef Junek
“Have you seen Stranger Things?”
“You need to see Stranger Things!”
“You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Stranger Things!”
I think my friends were trying to tell me something.
Eventually, after hearing the same thing day in and day out, I decided to fulfill my “greatest need in life.” I reopened my Netflix account to watch Stranger Things. I only expected to watch the first episode on this particular morning, and was surprised when I found myself at the other end of the day, yawning and closing the Netflix app having finished the entire first season. As I plugged in my tablet to refill its starving battery, I thought to myself what a terrific show this was. I could understand why my friends were devoted to it. I loved it.
Wait a minute! I stopped in my tracks. Did I really love this show? I don’t like horror. I’m uneasy with profanity. I don’t even like the 80s.
I didn’t like Stranger Things at all! So why did I feel this sense of connection to it?
The following weeks I studied my friends closely. While some genuinely loved the show and could think critically about both its good and bad points, under scrutiny, some of my other friends’ obsessions with Stranger Things seemed a little more quantitative than substantive. A little more desperate than a conventional fandom. It seemed almost as if they were trying to convince me they were fans of the show.
The format of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other season-dumping platforms tricks the mind into thinking it is devoted to something. In this sense, the practice of binge-watching adds something new to the human story. We have always been devoting ourselves to fictional stories, but now our devotion itself is fictional.
Devotion connotates love, loyalty, and conviction. It is something related very closely to religion in the sense that it requires faithfulness, a higher priority in life, and a willingness to partake for eternity. It is something one chooses for oneself. There is a deeper spiritual connection. It is something that must be built over time and cannot be learned in a day. While Netflix provides none of these things, its format provides substitutes for them all. These substitutes are so powerful, yet subtle, that they deceive the brain and make the viewer think that he or she is devoted to a show.
Think back to any time you have binge-watched. If you look closely, you will notice that behind the series you think you are watching, there is another series, a series of substitutions that tell your brain a story, one that says you are absolutely devoted to the show. See if any of this sounds familiar to you:
Binge-Watching: Season 1.
Episode 1: Pressing the Button. Devotion connotates choice. You cannot let someone else tell you what you like. You decide what you like. Unfortunately, Netflix shows, just like old-school television, are passive entertainment; you do not have to think while you partake. But, unlike television, Netflix does let you think before you participate. You get to choose what show to watch and when to watch it. You perform the physical action of tapping on a little picture of two 80’s teenagers with the caption “Stranger Things.” This small element of choice fulfills the brain’s need to feel like it has accomplished something, tricking you into thinking you are putting forth effort.
Episode 2: Episodic Format. By definition, a devotee cannot partake in a ritual only once. Someone devoted to a television program must return for half an hour every week. Yet a binge-watch only happens once, right? But Stranger Things breaks its eight-hour long story into multiple episodes, creating the illusion that you are faithfully returning to the show every time.
Episode 3: Comparison. Some would define love as a greater desire for something than all others. The only way you can initially get to Stranger Things is by passing through Netflix’s cluttered home screen of other, lesser quality content, as opposed to television where you start watching your show as soon as to turn the set on. Seeing everything you passed up for Stranger Things suggests to your brain that you chose this show because it’s better than everything else. That is, you desire it more than all others. You must love it.
Episode 4: Mobility. Devotion is not genuine until it has endured seasons of difficulty. It becomes difficult to watch a television show if you need to be outdoors, or in a room with no TV. Netflix gets around this problem by eliminating difficult times altogether. Its mobile format allows you to watch it wherever and whenever convenient.
Episode 5: Cultural Acceptance. This avoidance of difficulty will only go so far. Eventually, you will have to make a choice to either keep watching or walk the dog. But we already established you love this show, right? It’s something special. Besides, binge-watching is a “thing.” Everybody’s doing it. So, you decide to watch another episode instead of walking the dog.
Episode 6: Season-Dumping. If your devotion is genuine, you are willing to commit yourself indefinitely. But you can’t watch Netflix forever. Even regular television loses prospective devotees because they are not willing to stick around for three months to see how a story ends. But you have the entire season of Stranger Things at your disposal. You know there is an end. You can literally see it right there in the episode listing. You do not have to wait for eternity; eternity has compressed itself especially for you.
Episode 7: Content Overload. If you are devoted to something you can critically analyze the virtue of your decision to commit to this object of devotion. And so too can you with the decision to watch Stranger Things. At least, you think you can. Wait…Weren’t you supposed to walk the dog or something? You’re neglecting your duties, so maybe this isn’t a good thing. But if it’s not good, why are you still watching? Good grief! The videos keep playing nonstop! They don’t give you enough time to think.
Episode 8: Compressed Story. Devotion involves some sort of deep human connection, and boy do you feel it with all these characters! It’s the second-to-last episode and you feel like Hop, Mike and Eleven are family. Think about all character development that happens over the course of an entire television season that you just witnessed in one day. You are exhausted. It’s a good thing no real people are around to watch this with you. That’d just be too much connection. But right now, you’ve never felt so in-tune with your emotions. Is that your dog barking?
Episode 9: Time. The true test of devotion is time. If you practice religion for a day, does that make you religious? Of course not. If you watch Stranger Things for a day, does that make you devoted to the show? Absolutely, because you just spent a whole season’s worth of time on this thing! But wait. Did you? No. It was just a day. What most people see in three months, you have just seen in seven hours and thirty-eight minutes! Will you go back and watch it tomorrow? Or even two weeks from now? If the answer is no, can you even say you are devoted? Oh well, you’re too tired to think anyway. May as well go back to bed. Actually, maybe you ought to walk the dog first.
It is interesting how the format of an entertainment medium can trick a person’s mind into thinking that he or she is devoted to something. Even more interesting, however, is that it reveals how fundamental devotion is as a part of humanity. How desperate to show devotion must we be that we will allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking we are devoted to something? It is almost as if we were created to show devotion.
So, what should we do about the pseudo-devotion phenomenon known as binge-watching? Should it be avoided altogether?
Not necessarily. The phenomenon should not be treated as something that needs to be dismissed or embraced. Rather, it should serve as a wake-up call—a call to hyper-intentionality when it comes to entertainment, and all our objects of devotion in general. Think critically about how much you actually love the things you devote your time and resources to. Think critically about your favorite Netflix show. How much is it really worth to you?
You may find it’s much less than $7.99.