The Joys And Travails Of A Binge Viewer

While surfing the Netflix start-up screen a couple of months ago, I spotted West Wing, decided to check out the first episodes to see what all the fuss was about. I was immediately hooked — only 155 more episodes to go. Since I started with Bartlet & Co., I have abandoned the books I started and haven't even tried to start any new ones. It has also precluded all TV viewing other than the local news and the Pirates. But I'm grateful for all the TV technology, much of which wasn't around at West Wing's birth, that allows me to revive and enjoy the series.

A few weeks ago, writing in the New York Times, James Atlas described his experience as a binge viewer — ” sitting alone in a darkened room night after night” watching episodes of AMC’s Breaking Bad via Netflix.

“Forty-six episodes at a commercial-free 47 minutes each — about the length of a psychiatric session — adds up to 36 hours, almost a whole workweek. That’s a lot of time to spend in front of the TV. It feels illicit, unhealthy, even faintly criminal.”

What a wimp.

Try West Wing. I have been locked into saga of the Bartlet administration as it tries to lead America without losing its soul.

While surfing the Netflix start-up screen a couple of months ago, I spotted West Wing, decided to check out the first episodes to see what all the fuss was about. I was immediately hooked. Then, I notice the number of episodes: 156. That works out to 112 hours — more than three times Breaking Bad’s paltry 36.

If Breaking Bad is a binge, then West Wing is a week-long bender in a cheap motel in Vegas.


You don’t start in on a series like West Wing without a little experience. Mine came in early February when Nexflix offered House of Cards, an original Washington drama with Kevin Spacey — original in the sense that it was a new production. In fact, it is a remake of a four-episode BBC drama of the same name (also available on Netflix).

At 13 episodes, I was able to knock out Cards in about a week. It is a dark comedy in which Congressman Frank Underwood stops at nothing in his quest for revenge and power for its own sake. If you let Underwood loose  in the relatively innocent West Wing world, he would roll over President Bartlet and the rest of the U.S. government and crown himself emperor within four episodes.

Atlas commented about how binge watching steals your reading time. It’s true. Pre-West Wing, I was always into a book or two, mostly on a Kindle. Since I started with Bartlet & Co., I have abandoned the books I started and haven’t even tried to start any new ones.

It has also precluded all TV viewing other than the local news and the Pirates, whose games I also get online through

Binge viewing has also ruined movies for me. I was enthralled by Spielberg’s Lincoln with Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the great man. In that last scene, where Lincoln is standing on the east steps of the Capitol delivering his second inaugural, I were transported to the moment.

But afterward, I’m thinking, “Is that it?” Spielberg and Lewis recreate 1865 Washington and then spin out their story in just two hours and 30 minutes — the equivalent of thee and a half episodes of West Wing. I felt cheated. What about the first four years of his presidency and all the real drama that filled them? All the battles he fought in Washington to sustain the real battles and ultimately win the war.

When West Wing  began in 1999, I was as busy as I have ever been in my life, having just moved my family to the New York area and taken over as editor of Broadcasting & Cable. I had no time for a serial drama, especially one where you had to show up on an appointed day and time.

I’m grateful for all the TV technology, much of which wasn’t around at West Wing’s birth, that allows me to revive and enjoy the series.

Without doubt, the show is deserving of the Peabody, the Emmys and all the other awards it garnered over its seven seasons on NBC.  It’s a civics lesson as powerful drama. Just about every issue gets its turn, from terrorism to genocide to, yes, the national TV station ownership cap.

I would agree with critics who say the characters are, on the whole, too reasonable, too earnest and too determined to do right thing. Where is all the pettiness and consuming self-interest that we humans are so famous for? How do Josh and Toby not quit after C.J. becomes chief of staff? Or, not undermine her so they can get the job?

You have to love the smart, rapid-fire dialog. It’s like a Marx brothers movie. If you are not paying close attention, you miss a lot. I say that, understanding that such dialog has little connection to reality. Compare a West Wing script with the transcript of one of those actual recorded conversations from Nixon White House. If you want a realistic White House drama, better to hire David Mamet than Aaron Sorkin.

The evolution of communications technology in the show has been fun to watch. In the first season, staffers are still responding to beepers and faxes and looking things up in an encyclopedia. By Season Six (2005), everybody has a cell phone and C.J. has to address rumors on the “World Wide Web” that she is a lesbian.

I’m now deep into Season Six and the focus is shifting to the next election and who will succeed Bartlet. I am beginning to feel nostalgic for the good old days when Sam roamed the halls, Leo ruled the staff with a firm hand, C.J. kept the press corps at bay with her banter and the president could get through a day without a nap.

I don’t know what I’ll do when the last reel plays out.

By the way, the mechanics of watching Netflix have a long way to go. The hassle recalls the 1960s when you had to wait for tubes to warm up and fiddle with rabbit ears, two tuners (VHF and UHF) and an array of knobs (horizontal and vertical hold, brightness, contrast) before you got a decent picture.

I watch West Wing using a tiny Roku box connected between my FiOS broadband line and my 50-inch TV. I need the remote that came with the set to switch the source from the cable box to Roku. With the Roku remote (another remote!) I slowly navigate through the clumsy hierarchy of Roku and Netflix until I find West Wing and “Next Episode.” Then, I have to wait for it to boot up or buffer of whatever it does and I’m thinking of those tubes in the back of the old B&W TV set. And just like that set, the Roku/Netflix setup can inexplicably lose the picture for a spell.

The holy grail of television is an interface that will allow folks to sort through the myriad options find what they want to watch quickly and easily. Apple and a lot of other companies are on the quest. This week, we posted a story saying Hearst, News Corp. and BSkyB were backing Roku’s effort.

What’s next?

Well, Breaking Bad beckons on my Netflix start-up screen. But so does Downton Abbey, Grey’s Anatomy, Battlestar Galactica and Hatfields & McCoys.

There’s 24, too. People used to rave about it. And it’s only 193 episodes.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (3)

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Kimberly Gari-Luff says:

May 31, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Crappy navigation isn’t limited to Roku. My cable company, Cox, offers Movies on Demand but finding a title can be quite frustrating. Categories like “Classics”, ” “Family Favorites” or other non-specific categories were no help in finding James Cameron’s “Titanic,” which we eventually stumbled into — and enjoyed, again.

I could’ve used a ten-key alpha-search on the Cox remote, like YouTube offers through my Internet-enabled Blu-ray player. I know how to do it but if Cox has such, I didn’t “stumble” into it.

Years into their On Demand operation, I’m disappointed the interface is clunky. Who has/had a full keyboard except for Web-TV?? In the absence of a full keypad, some clever thinking is needed. (Yes, I can install a dedicated media player computer and Bluetooth keyboard. That would be computer #9, I think … so, no.)

Ellen Samrock says:

May 31, 2013 at 5:12 pm

It’s interesting to see how web-based services like Netflix has spurred on the phenomenon of binge viewing. Of course, broadcast TV used to do occasional marathons, particularly during the holidays, like “The Twilight Zone” marathon. But there is no reason why stations or the networks can’t schedule more of them and, thereby, feed the addiction. It would be great if indie stations could take a syndicated series or several and strip them. I’m just now discovering “Law & Order: SVU” in this way. There has got to be a way in which broadcast television can blunt, at least slightly, the on-demand model. Frequent airings or stripped repeats might be one way.

Denis Lambert says:

May 31, 2013 at 6:41 pm

Harry — West Wing sustained me during the dark days of the Bush Administration, when I’d fantasize that Jeb Bartlett was our real President. Glad you are finally getting the chance to enjoy it, even if your binge interfers with reading and viewing your beloved Pirates games. You have waited this long, you might as well lean into the binge, until you are done, spent and exhausted, but sated until the next Netflix long-haul series marathon. House of Cards is brilliant and I’m thrilled that production has already begun on the second “season” with the casting call for extras and bit players in Brentwood, MD. Netflix interface got a whole lot easier for me with a smart TV that only needs one remote. Just push the little Netflix button and voila! my queue appears. That same remote has buttons for Hulu and Amazon, and now that Amazon is producing original shows I may have to sign up for Amazon Prime. I just watched the free pilot of Garry Trudeau’s “Men of the House” and it’s hysterical. A great antidote to Frank Underwood’s malice.