You're curled up under a blanket, five hours into the latest season of Supernatural, when Netflix decides it is time to gravely insult you. The screen flashes, "Are you still watching?", and suddenly, you are reminded that the impending fight between the rugged, muscular protagonists and yet another demon is not actually the most important thing going on right now—your paper is. You press “Continue watching.”
The shift in the way we watch TV has been remarked upon endlessly by people who regard binge watching as a waste of time. These people fail to recognize that before streaming services, the average American watched whatever happened across their boxy television set. From infomercials to soap operas, these Americans, slighted by time and technology, dealt with an onslaught of commercials that occupied too much of their time. Streaming is more efficient in a society that values efficiency, and watching TV shows the way we do now—sequentially, faithfully, and intensely—reflects the growth of a relationship with technology that adds to life personally and socially.
I am a fan of the balanced binge watch. Somewhat oxymoronic, I know, but, in my experience, binging shows is a rewarding experience if you allow it to be. Characters in shows you've dedicated hours to begin to feel like family, and after a hiatus in the real world, returning to the constancy of their compact universe feels like a second home. Joining them in fighting battles, bonding with the protagonist's flatmate, or going through medical residency with them is a good way to avoid every day stresses for a bit.
Beyond simple escapism, it builds empathy for others by allowing us to live their lives, if even for a few hours. Watching likable people fight, love, die, and just banter over coffee helps viewers understand the scope of the human experience, and maybe approach their own lives differently. Sherlock shows that some cold, brilliant, snarky people crave affection as much as the next person. Supernatural drives home the fact that the idea of “family” transcends blood, and Girls reminds us that living in Brooklyn is especially difficult when the paycheck is low but the maturity is even lower. Every other show sheds light on different issues and expresses a variety of values that resonate with viewers far and wide.
Reading has always been hailed as the superior way of encountering fiction, but television shows are every bit as effective in conveying the diversity of human lives as written literature. Like any task, watching shows does not require consuming an inordinate amount of each day, but making time to get lost adds much more than it detracts.
There are other benefits to tuning into the experiences of others through television shows. An important one being learning more about oneself. The compassion we develop for others through fiction is important, but vicariously achieving goals that a viewer has set in his or her own life is invaluable. Though perhaps not wholly realistic, shows like Scrubs inspire people to pursue medicine. As an International Studies major, my latest summer binge, Madam Secretary, has been a fascinating look into a career in my realm of interest. Reading the biographies of those in a particular profession or looking up internships that might one day lead you to that dream job are great ways to explore, but having an intimate understanding of the day-to-day and watching both the successes and failures that come with the career of a show's protagonist can be instructive and inspiring.
There is also an undeniable social element of Netflix, beyond the overused "Netflix and chill." Friends come together to obsess over the latest episodes. People create blogs to post original fan art and fiction based on their favorite shows. The internet is filled with hateful comments, depressing news stories, and acrid debate, but websites dedicated to discussion of shows by enthused fans are some of the brightest, most passionate spaces on the internet. Anything that brings people together for the simple sake of making those involved happy should be protected, not disparaged. The often criticized "Netflix Society" consists of people seeking refuge in the unreal, inspiration in the attainable, and strengthened personal relationships, so binge on. I'd recommend starting with Game of Thrones.