TV watching as an endurance test

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 4:06 PM

Ready to jump into the fast-growing sport of binge viewing? Your training begins now.

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Anjelica Huston and Robert Duvall star in "Lonesome Dove"

Confession time. I'm an addict.

I'd like to think I can stop at just one, but there have been too many nights when I've overindulged to the point that it's suddenly 4 a.m. and I'm ready to give up my friends, family and job for another hit.

I'm a binge watcher.

Turns out I have company. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, "bingeing" -- devouring multiple episodes of a series in one sitting -- is one of the hottest trends in entertainment. TV series, which accounted for 20 percent of Netflix's business in 2009, now make up 60 percent of the company's business, in large part because streaming content makes it easy for viewers to keep watching episodes without having to wait by the mailbox for the next batch of goodies.

Some critics may argue that this is the worst thing to happen to television since the creation of "Wipeout."

TV, like sushi, was meant to be sampled in small doses, they contend, and gorging without taking time to digest makes it impossible to properly savor. (Let's not get into the fact that, for most bingers, the closest thing to exercise during a marathon session is pressing fast-forward through the opening credits.)

A valid argument, but one that goes against my instincts as a TV lover.

If I've just watched Jack Bauer's condo blow up, why should I have to wait a week -- or even a nanosecond -- to see how he got out of it?

Binge viewing is also the best way to truly appreciate dense, multi-character series with plots that would make William Faulkner's head spin. When I have to wait a week between episodes of "Breaking Bad," I almost require a flow chart to remind myself what's happening. With "binge" viewing, it's easier to follow the action.

In just the past few months, I've caught up with "Weeds" and "Dexter" by watching five episodes at a time. Last weekend, I slaughtered four straight installments of "Game of Thrones." And then there was the summer of 2010, when I gobbled down all seven seasons of "The West Wing" over the course of one red-eyed week.

I don't recommend such a session to amateur bingers.

If you're just picking up the sport, start with small portions (three episodes at a time) and the following suggestions. In no time at all, you'll find yourself up in the middle of the night, talking yourself into just one more.

BEST BINGE DRAMA: "THE WIRE" (HBO)

Many who claim they watched TV's smartest, most compelling drama during its original run are most likely the offspring of the folks who swore they attended Woodstock. Stop pretending to be one of the cool kids and actually become one by exploring this crime drama in which the most haunting enemy is red tape.

BEST BINGE COMEDY: "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT" (FOX)

There are finer sitcoms (the British version of "The Office" and "Taxi" come instantly to mind), but none benefits more from continuous viewing than this multilayered exploration of the Bluth family. The sitcom failed to resonate with a mass audience during its original run because, unlike other comedies, the humor relied heavily on knowing what had happened weeks, even months, before. Binge viewing helps keep the memory -- and the humor -- sharp.

BEST BINGE MINISERIES: "LONESOME DOVE" (CBS)

Sure, there are nobler, more important projects than this yarn about two aging cowboys, but watching weightier work like "Roots" or "Holocaust" in one sitting can feel too much like a homework assignment. "Dove" offers the perfect combination of romance, action and Robert Duvall's horndog commentary. Saddle up.

BEST BINGE DOCUMENTARY: "JAZZ" (PBS)

The length of Ken Burns' biggest projects can challenge even the most caffeinated binger, but the 20 hours of "Jazz" move along quickly, thanks to memorable stories and a soundtrack for the ages. There's nothing like the promise of hearing more of Billie Holiday's voice to get you to invest in the next installment.

BEST BINGE SKETCH SHOW: "SCTV" (SYNDICATED)

"Saturday Night Live" is more celebrated and "Your Show of Shows" is still the standard-bearer, but there's nothing quite as addictive as watching John Candy, Martin Short and a cavalcade of cutups engaging in mindless, timeless fun. If you're still glued by Sunday morning, celebrate with breakfast at the 3-D house of pancakes.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin

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