Binge Watching, Dreams and Solace
Updated: May 9
Prison Break was the first show I binge-watched. This week, I’m bingeing on Amazon’s Bosch.
In 2011, living apart from my husband while employed in Toronto, I went through an intense course of radiation. Instead of working my typical 80 hour week, I worked a few hours each morning and got a new dose of radiation early each afternoon, after which I rested for eight+ hours until bedtime. The new TV that my holistic medical practitioner prescribed was my only companion. Streaming Netflix had arrived in Canada less than a year earlier.
Today, I am lounging around a Boca Raton condo, semi-isolated and living temporarily apart from my beloved in Albany, NY, while I support aging parents through a global pandemic. I stream Netflix along with a varying array of other services including CBS All Access, Showtime, Amazon Prime, Acorn and Sundance.
Casual reflections I’ve had for years about the innovative use of television programming to become immersed in a show’s universe seem more relevant now than ever. Today, Facebook friends are saying their dreams have become weirder, oddly vibrant and more frequent during the coronavirus lock down. Today, billions of people are living in the seemingly endless isolation I endured for a few months in 2011. Today, many isolated souls are enjoying more intimate quality time with television characters than with real humans. So today, after shamelessly watching two episodes of Bosch before noon, I pulled myself away and decided to write about it.
Prison Break is one of those rare multi-season shows with a complete story arc. It begins with the end in mind; despite twists, turns, setbacks and the occasional “oh, come on!” character choice or plot element, it arrives, 90 episodes later, at its intended ending. In a nutshell: A lost soul is in prison, having been framed for murder. His brilliant, devoted and profoundly heroic brother executes an intricate plan to break him out, relying on sophisticated planning and highly adaptive exploitation of changes in their circumstances. A love story, corrupt corrections officers, international intrigue and vengeance build interest and suspense, until finally, the intrepid brother fully frees the no-longer-lost, school-of-hard-knocks-matured one.
This was a gritty, well-conceptualized, written, acted and filmed program that I watched as a 63-hour movie. During the weeks I was breaking down under radiation treatments, I spent more time and felt more at ease with Prison Break’s protagonists than with any actual humans. Each day, I spent more hours with that show than at work and in the hospital combined.
Binge-watching Prison Break immersed me deeply in a world where the opportunities, problems, contexts and solutions were utterly unlike mine. This was new. Thrilling. At the time, my only comparable experience was the single year in which I read all six of James Clavell’s (lengthy) Asia novels. In both cases, when the final scene closed I felt bereft, as if I’d been shut out of part of my own life.
Still convalescing in Toronto, I dove back in immersing myself sequentially in other television worlds: Saving Grace (they completed the arc, albeit earlier than they – and I – had hoped), Burned, Leverage (oh, sweet justice), Monk, Fawlty Towers and M.A.S.H. (the whole series at once). Re-watching M.A.S.H. highlighted how radically different I felt while bingeing the series from when I’d pop in on each episode for 23 minutes a week, with summers and holidays off.
I remember betting someone (maybe myself or the TV) that a doctoral student would write their dissertation on how binge-watching shifts the medium of television from passive to active. True to my prediction, researchers did begin to examine the effect of binge-watching on daily habits and health. In a publication of Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Department of Advertising + Public Relations, Allison Eden explains the objective of a study she conducted with colleague Morgan Ellithorpe: “We are trying to understand if there is something different about binge watching than other types of viewing behavior, and if it can have an impact on your health” (https://comartsci.msu.edu/research-and-creative-work/impact-binge-watching-your-health).
Ellithorpe and Eden found that, “… Binge watching is associated with detrimental health behaviors such as foregoing sleep in order to continue watching, selecting unhealthy meals, unhealthy snacking and sedentary behavior (i.e., sitting too long, less exercise).”
Another study, “Binge Viewing, Sleep, and the Role of Pre-Sleep Arousal,” published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, had a more tightly focused objective: “To investigate the prevalence of binge viewing, its association with sleep and [to] examine arousal as an underlying mechanism of this association” (Exelmans & Van den Bulck, https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.6704).
Exelmans and Van den Bulck concluded their study with this statement:
Convergence between traditional and new media has diversified television's technology, dis-tribution, and use. This study provides initial evidence that modern viewing styles such as binge viewing may negatively affect overall sleep quality, and identified cognitive pre-sleep arousal as the explanatory mechanism. Despite television's status as a form of “old media,” the rise of binge viewing [indicates] that viewers are more engaged than ever with television content …. As quoted by Mikos: “Television will not disappear: it will only become available on all existing screens—and so become more present and more important.”
The MSU study did not ignore the positives of this immersive style of viewing. Eden set the context: “Entertainment can do a lot of positive things for you, beyond just laughing and enjoying it in the moment. It can keep you company when you feel lonely, help you recover from a long day of work and take you outside yourself to experience another character’s perspective. We see a lot of these positive effects generally when studying entertainment.” Ellithorpe explained that these positive effects may intensify with binge-watching: “Importantly, we see some evidence that these positive outcomes of media entertainment – enjoyment, immersion and character involvement – are stronger after binge watching than they are after watching TV the traditional way (i.e., one episode per week).”
I don’t know where the program Bosch is heading or if it will arrive there by its closing scene. I can, however, describe my relationship with the show in the same words I used for Prison Break: it’s a gritty, well-conceptualized, written, acted and filmed program that I’m watching as a movie. As in 2011, there are so few other ways for me to see people up close, I treasure each word and facial expression of the detective and his daughter like I would close friends’.
Are the dream, sleep and dietary disruptions and the sedentary tendencies that are being reported widely during this pandemic related to a surge in hours of binge-watching TV? I wouldn’t be surprised. Likewise, I’d would not be surprised to read research one day concluding that coronavirus-era binge-watching provided billions of people measurable solace, refreshment, hope and cognitive stimulation. In our isolation, these have become scarce comforts, valued (dare I say) as much as or maybe more so than toilet paper.