Whoa, look at all that TV.

Too much content, too little time: How watching TV came to feel like a chore

Too much content, too little time. What's up with the way we think about and watch TV these days, Jean Teng asks herself.

I make a few new friends a week. They enter my life, storm my mind, make me feel for them. Briefly, for one or two days, I care so much about their existence. Then, they leave.

I am guilty – almost chronically so – of watching the first few episodes of a television show and then never revisiting it again. I get buzzed on learning about new people, new worlds, new relationships, new tensions, new dreams, and then my excitement fizzles out, spurred to latch on to the next thing.

But, oh, those sweet first three episodes are my favourite thing ever. They feed a) my love for characters b) my fear of missing out and, relatedly, c) my need to consume as much content as possible so I can make surface-level talk about every talked-about show in order to project an identity of being in-the-know. Delicious!

I’ve only seen the first three episodes of Good Trouble, PEN15, Workin’ Moms, Good Girls, Friday Night Lights, The Americans, Maniac, Westworld, Dear White People, Jane the Virgin, Billions, Forever (and on and on) even though I didn’t think any of them sucked – in fact, I liked a few of them heaps and heaps. But, for some silly reason or another (like, I couldn’t stop thinking of Matthew Rhys in The Americans as Matthew Rhys in my much-beloved Brothers & Sisters. You expect me to believe this man is a… Russian spy? And I just couldn’t see past the potential skeeviness of PEN15 in which two teenage girls played by adults are crushing on actual teenage-aged actors even though all reports indicate it doesn’t cross the line. Also, like, my co-star horoscope said “Sometimes wasting time is not conscious” the day I tried to start Friday Night Lights so…) none of them fulfilled this arbitrary requirement of “worth my time”, not when so many others are being shouted into the pop culture zeitgeist.

Television watching has become one of two things: catching a couple of 20-minute episodes here and there to zone out after coming home from my 8-5 job, maybe while playing Candy Crush at the same time, or binging an entire season during the weekend so I don’t lose that giddy new-show excitement and get restless. In both those instances, my phone is the second screen in the equation, an Instagram story or tweet snatching my attention between the most miniscule of lulls. Love all that constant, overwhelming amount of content and stimulation fighting for our attention, and the devaluation of the television medium as a result. It doesn’t feel like enough to just passively stare at one screen anymore – two’s the way to go. And the beauty of an Instagram story or tweet is the immediate gratification in its ability to be consumed entirely from start to conclusion in a matter of seconds – it’s like I’m being doubly as productive! And as a journalist… doing my job better! Isn’t this, uh, really the ultimate case of “better living, everyone”?

Maybe that’s a shitty way to approach consuming a medium I’ve historically enjoyed to the point of indulging in fandom activities (one terrifying word: Superwholock) – but this is the new way of “enjoying” TV.

As I’ve said, I think favourably of most of those aforementioned shows (except perhaps Billions, because if I’m going to watch shitty rich people it’s going to be Succession), mollified by knowing if I wanted to go back and watch them, I could. Maybe, just like relationships, you don’t have to see TV shows right through to the end for it to mean something to you – just stay in them till you don’t want to anymore, and then leave them be? In my case, I’ll often get to know the characters a little, read the rest of their story on Wikipedia – fuck, I love those summaries – and then it’s done and dusted. I can be part of the world! Catch me at a dinner party talking about the subversive genre-bending of Jane the Virgin Like I didn’t stop watching four seasons before Michael died (then… came back to life?)

That obviously negates the whole point of a TV show. Writers write with the intention of building up to something:  there’s some sort of pay-off. And yet, because of the sheer amount of television shows that are a MUST-WATCH – or, as a Vulture headline would put it “deserves your time” – I just don’t… care. In fact, I often think it’s good that I’m cutting my losses early, to leave myself with a fond memory of the characters rather than fester in bitterness so I can Tweet about how much I’ve wasted my precious minutes watching the show.

Lately, lots of television shows I got into at a younger age, but never finished, have ended. I got up to season 5 in Game of Thrones, season 3 in Orange is the New Black, season 2 in Broad City, season 1 of You’re The Worst. Their endings meant nothing to me. Even shows that I did watch right till the end, like Veep, didn’t seem to manifest or make waves in my world as a cultural event – not like Friends, or Sex and the City might have. I didn’t feel sad. I didn’t talk about it with my friends, as, due to the sheer amount of content, none of the shows we watch match up. “Have you seen ____?” “Nah, man, but I’ve been meaning to!” “Have you seen _____, though?” “Nah… got it on my watchlist, though.”

Maybe it feels like this because there isn’t any time for these shows to fill up any empty space, to weasel into my mind and linger. Or maybe it’s because I no longer have to exert any effort into finding a legitimate illegal link to stream or a torrent to download (God, I used to wait like three hours to download entire seasons), when I really had to want to watch this TV show to make it work. Instead, I just click play. The easiness in clicking play and watching shows bleed into each other over and over, as if there aren’t any episodes, almost repels close engagement; I can get away with doing something else very easily, thinking about something else. Or thinking about the next thing to watch.

And that’s just the thing, right? The amount of quality TV shows out there much outweigh the time it takes to watch them. Nothing becomes a stand-out Must-See on your priority list when everything is a Must-See, when there is at least one think piece on every show on why it’s Worth Your Time, why it’s the “One Show You Need to See”.

That’s all just proof there are so many other fish in the sea – and new friends to make.

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