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Binge Watching vs. Delight

September 29, 2016

Binge Watching vs. Delight: Caring Better About What We Watch

written by Brian Shesko

In her recent post in First Things, Dr. Karen Prior offers her perspective on the ways Christians tend to approach entertainment, which amount to either nonparticipation or “mindless consumption”. Going to either extreme, she argues, is nearly equally problematic because either approach can be idolatrous. Mindless consumption idolizes the entertainment, or perhaps even the entertainer; rejection and/or abstention can turn such behavior itself into an idol. For her, the better way to approach contemporary entertainment, and therefore the broader culture that produces it, is through what could be described as discerning delight: a balanced approach that is thoughtful and careful in selecting what is consumed, while also being able to experience true delight in both how and why it is consumed. An approach rooted in true delight is in contrast to what she describes as the “acedia”, or carelessness, that characterizes the viewing habits of far too many people, Christian or not.

It is carelessness that I would like to focus on here. As she clarifies, our un-caring in regard to entertainment can certainly be indiscriminate viewing, but it can also be “busy” viewing. Few Christians would argue for the appropriateness of partaking in any form entertainment regardless of content or purpose, but perhaps not as many would think of “busy” viewing the same way. After all, we are already at a point when just about everyone regardless of age is watching a lot of television, but younger people, especially college-aged young people, have made this the binge-watching generation. And if such a viewing habit is now commonplace (enough that “binge-watching” is an Oxford Online Dictionary term now), it is hard to imagine that there is much of a negative attitude toward it. Yet, nothing lends itself more to careless viewing than binge-watching.

In an article that fits nicely with Dr. Prior’s, writer Jim Pagels argues that binge-watching is counterproductive viewing perhaps most importantly because “episodes have their own integrity” and blurring them all together both diminishes that integrity and can impact the coherence of the story from season to season or even from beginning to end. If we truly want to care for and delight in our entertainment, then one of the best places to start is to treat the art we are viewing respectfully. Of course, part of this is our willingness to “get lost” in the story itself, but we also need to care to understand it, to see the individual parts in respect to the whole, and to do our best to both chew on and digest what we have seen. The one thing that all of this requires is time, and if we only want to devour what is in front of us, we will barely be able to appreciate what it is we are seeing. The analogy to food is apt here: when is binging ever positive in that respect? Also, the better the food, the less likely you are to devour it. 

This is why delight is such an important value to highlight and repeat often. It is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis, who, in his work An Experiment in Criticism, talked about the various types of readers that exist. “The majority,” he says, “never read anything twice,” while those who truly care about a work “will read [it] ten, twenty, or thirty times during the course of their life.”** No one throws away a great work; on the contrary, a great work is revisited, with stories that carry us away, and characters that become almost like friends. Granted, even great television is not comparable to great literature, but the principle is still there, especially when you think of the throw-away nature of much entertainment today. Finding and delighting in excellent entertainment can provide both immediate and lasting rewards as long as we are willing to be patient with our viewing, apprehending and savoring both in part and in whole.

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