My name is Lindsay, and I'm a recovering Downton Abbey junkie. A few months back, I pulled up the first episode on Netflix because of a recommendation from a trusted friend. Two foggy days later, I was wrapping up the final episode of the second season at 3 AM with an idiotic, mentally exhausted grin on my face, and the irrepressible desire to quote the Dowager Countess. Has this ever happened to you?
I never sit down and watch traditional TV, yet sometimes I will watch seven or eight episodes of a series I like in a single, drawn-out evening. Now that entire seasons, or even full series, of TV programs are readily available online, it's easy to fuel this obsession. And obsessive TV watching doesn't seem to discriminate; in fact, most of the people I know seem to have had at least one show provoke such a response in them. This almost addictive drive can get in the way of socializing, chores, and sometimes work (with a few of us going so far as to call in sick in order to get more watching hours in outside the office). The writers of the television comedy Portlandia masterfully captured the crack-cocaine-like effect of certain shows in their sketch about the ur-granddaddy of addictive TV shows, Battlestar Galactica:
Why do we go on TV show benders? Well, for one, the way that TV writers structure episodes is guaranteed to keep you pushing the button. Think about how frequently an episode of your favorite show leaves off on a cliffhanger, even one you can reasonably expect (like the outbreak of WWI during the run of Downton Abbey). Or consider how frequently something seems to simmer just below the surface, waiting to explode (like, say, the untimely and scandalous demise of a Turkish diplomat). Do you find yourself wondering what might possibly happen to the characters, even sharing speculations with the other junkies in your life? This is, in part, because your brain is a bit of a prediction machine.
We humans evolved an ability to unconsciously model a number of complex future scenarios in our brains in order to generate predictions about the likelihood of each. When we get a prediction right, we are rewarded with a small hit of dopamine, one of the brain's pleasure chemicals. After all, correctly predicting the future for our ancestors might have meant everything from successfully planning a hunt to figuring out how best to approach a potential mate. The love of predicting correctly goes so deep that scientists at UC San Diego have even found that, on an unconscious level, we actually enjoy spoilers and loathe surprise endings. Millennia of evolution have left our brains positively craving confirmation of our predictions. So we press play just one more time.
When series are first broadcast, the hook at the end of an episode might ensure you'd tune in next week. For us, it means you press play on the following episode, just to see what happens next, and leaving you prey to the next hook. "Just one more episode," you think. "Then I'll go to bed/get dressed/leave for work/pay my bills." It stops being about the TV show itself and your enjoyment of it; you just want that dopamine hit.
Of course, this phenomenon isn't just limited to TV shows. Who among us hasn't stayed up to the wee hours in order to finish a book? Great fiction, in any form, is inherently addictive, joyfully commandeering our brains for a few hours (or a few days). If it doesn't cost you your relationship, your job, or your health, there's nothing wrong with indulging the urge for that mental cookie from time to time. Downton Abbey might be returning to network television in January of next year, but I think I'll wait for Netflix and a rainy weekend. My prediction machine could use it.
How does it feel to be hooked on a show? Have you ever burned out on one after one of these binges?
photo by JB + UK_Planet