I mentioned Netflix binge viewing last week. I’m not quite sure how I feel about its all-at-once release model. It used to be that everyone was on the same pace in their viewing habits for a particular series, so they could share a conversation about it and everyone would be on the same page. Now, unless you’re watching a show together with a group of friends, there’s little to be shared except a love or hate after each person is finished with the entire season. It’s bulimic story consumption.
I forget where I discovered the term, but somewhere in my graduate school readings, I came across the idea of bulimic education. In a traditional school setting, driven by summative assessments (big ole tests) and subsequent grades as identity markers, students are fed content and then they regurgitate it, making room for the next feeding. Paolo Freire called this the banking method, wherein teachers deposit knowledge in students’ heads, as though that’s how learning works. We (educators “in the know,” so to speak, if I may say that without condescension) now understand (though don’t necessarily enact) that knowledge is constructed; this process is absurdly complex and individualized, which makes designing a collective learning experience endlessly exciting but confounding. In many ways, it’s a Sisyphean endeavor, this whole education thing.
Anyway, just as a student gets almost nothing from bulimic education, consumers get almost nothing from bulimic entertainment. In both cases, we can take a cynical stance and argue that education and entertainment are socializing tools that aren’t intended to inspire or enlighten but to deaden and distract. That is, students/consumers figure out how to fall in line and fit in. Thinking and/or feeling (beyond spontaneous, momentary pleasure) are outside the bounds. When you just stuff things down, you’re not letting yourself process or digest, and therefore, you’re not getting anything out of the experience. You just feel bloated and terrible right after you’re finished, and then you shit it all out and get back to the same terrible business, wondering all along – unless all care has been ripped out of you – why you’re doing it and what you’re gaining from it. Not that there has to be a clear gain from education or entertainment, but if you’re only ever going through the motions because that’s what you assume you’re supposed to do, proper socialized person that you, then you’re guaranteed a pretty insubstantial, unemotional, unthinking existence.
The shame of it is that Netflix, with its bulimic model, is producing pretty brilliant entertainment. By brilliant, I mean potentially thought-provoking, emotionally fulfilling, inspiring work. Watching the likes of Wet Hot American Summer, BoJack Horseman, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (and this is saying nothing of their critically acclaimed dramas), and seeing how Netflix has actually invested in and trusted their creative talents, has reinvigorated my own writing ambitions. While the shows share absurdist tone and content, they are unique in their manifestations of that great signal of our age (absurdity); each show has a distinct voice, and none of the shows feel watered down by excessive corporate/marketing concern. There is clear risk (despite Netflix’s widely reported aggressive demographic studies) but even clearer excitement about the possibilities inherent to letting a creative team do their best work together without paralyzing oversight. The shows are so well-designed that I can’t help but eat them all up at once. Unfortunately, that left me more filled than fulfilled.
I would’ve preferred a single serving at a time, but consumers are nothing if not gluttons. We want it all right now, and if you give us that option, of course we’ll take it. I can’t imagine having watched Game of Thrones in the Netflix style. I would’ve never felt anything. The Red Wedding and Sansa’s rape, for instance, would’ve been just another scene, and not the profoundly disturbing moments that they were. I had the chance to pause and reflect. HBO didn’t send me right to the next episode so I could forget everything I just experienced in order to make room for another feeding. Netflix makes it easy for us to be obedient students of entertainment; we have to be intentional then about becoming curious learners.
The shows I mentioned above, that I effectively ate in one sitting, are worth returning to. Yes, the stakes aren’t high here. We’re talking about leisure, after all, and so we’re talking about power and privilege. I get that. But I’d like to make it so leisure is another learning opportunity, a part of life, not an ersatz death.