This article explores how binge-watching shifted from guilty pleasure to essential self-care during the extended lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While binge-watching was prescribed as one of the most effective ways to ward off lockdown ennui, quarantine conditions also led to its reframing as a politically productive activity, one tied to social-justice projects. Following the worldwide outrage over the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, listicles emerged of antiracist films and TV shows for viewers to watch as a means of converting them from unreflective couch potatoes into socially enlightened citizens. While such lists are problematic, COVID culture’s recasting of binge-watching as civic duty compels reflection on how viewing habits in the streaming era might be related to public pedagogy around social-justice struggles. The article concludes by pointing to the continued relevance of binge-watching as a concept that captures the affective intensities of internet TV and user-directed viewing during the pandemic and beyond.
During worldwide lockdowns for COVID-19 in 2020–21, media stories on the potentially lethal dangers of binge-watching were replaced by news of its restorative powers.1 USA Today, for instance, reassured viewers that “binge-watching can soothe the coronavirus quarantine blues, and no need for guilt.”2 Similarly, the website The Conversation announced that “watching TV in lockdown can be good for you” and recommended TV shows “particularly suited to boosting positive emotions.”3 Doling out TV-show suggestions like so many medicinal tablets was common practice during quarantine. Listicles along the lines of “The Best TV Shows to Binge in Lockdown” proliferated across the internet as binge-watching was prescribed as one of the most effective ways to ward off lockdown ennui.4
My own social-media feeds were a steady stream of chatter about which TV shows people had been bingeing and which they might binge next. While the practice of watching entire seasons in a compressed amount of time arguably first emerged with DVD box sets in the 1990s, the term “binge-watching” came to the fore with streaming TV and has been in widespread media circulation since 2013, when Netflix began vigorously marketing the practice with the launch of its first original series production, House of Cards (Beau Willimon, Netflix, 2013–18).5 As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings announced as early as 2011: “Netflix’s brand for TV shows is really about binge viewing. It is . . . to just get hooked and watch episode after episode. It’s addictive, it’s exciting, it’s different.”6
But where it was once promoted as a fun/guilty indulgence or as a prelude to sexual contact, as in the “Netflix and chill” euphemism and meme, binge-watching was recast as a form of self-care in the context of COVID-19. “It’s comforting, it’s healing, and it will help people get through this nightmare,” might read the unofficial tagline for Netflix during the pandemic. Increased screen time during lockdown was a boon for streaming services; as Forbes reported in March 2020, Netflix in particular “hit all-time highs . . . as millions of locked-down Americans chose binge-watching as their preferred means of coping with self-isolation.”7
“Comfort TV,” or what in some quarters began to be designated as “kind TV,” while certainly not a new notion, took on a different import in the midst of a growing worldwide death toll and grim conditions of social isolation that saw people separated from loved ones and disconnected from their daily routines.8 Shows such as Schitt’s Creek (Eugene Levy and Dan Levy, CBC/Netflix, 2015–20) and then later, in lockdown, Ted Lasso (Bill Lawrence, Jason Sudeikis, Brendan Hunt, and Joe Kelly, Warner Bros./NBC/Apple TV+, 2020–), appealed not only for their gentle, easy viewing qualities but also, I would argue, for their strong vision of care.
Both TV shows present “fish out of water” story lines that offer utopian images of community and connection: their comedy is built on a social scaffolding of well-being and alternative forms of kinship. As noted in The Care Manifesto—published in August 2020 as an urgent call for social transformation—the coronavirus pandemic exposed vast and preexisting inequities around health services and social welfare and made painfully apparent the extent to which “carelessness reigns” in neoliberal societies.9 It is little surprise, then, to discover the lockdown’s consequent boost in responsiveness to TV shows that served as “quarantine heart salves” through a construction of more caring and equitable worlds.10
Although lockdown conditions may have highlighted the healing properties of binge-watching, it is important to note that, long before the pandemic, scholars such as Lisa Perks argued for the recuperative functions of “media marathoning.” In her 2016 empirical study, Perks found that the activity of marathoning, which constituted “watching at least one season of a TV show in a week or less, watching three or more films from the same series in a week or less, or reading three or more books from the same series in a month or less,” had major benefits for those with health struggles.11 For her interview subjects—who included, for example, those recovering at home from injuries, those suffering from the effects of grueling cancer treatments, and those trying to manage debilitating depression and anxiety—there was a beneficial social element to binge-watching.
As Perks writes: “Media marathoning experiences functioned as a hub for meaningful social engagement for a population that often had few alternative avenues for social activity.”12 That social activity included bonding with family members over media objects, but it also involved accumulating “social capital” through online interactions, which helped to overcome feelings of isolation. While her study found that marathoning tended to taper off after health crises rather than becoming “a regular maintenance strategy,” what is fascinating about the use of bingeing as a form of “media-related coping” during the pandemic is its sustained intensity and its expansion to a global viewing populace.13 As Perks noted in the prophetic conclusion to her study: “The day may soon come in which the phrase ‘Netflix and heal’ is part of the common lexicon.”14
With the collective turn to TV watching as both comfort blanket and social communion during COVID-19, Perk’s prophecy has indeed been realized. However, what needs to be evaluated further are the forms that “Netflix and heal” have taken during the pandemic as well as the different meanings—and social potentialities—that have become attached to the cultural concept of binge-watching.
One way of marking the different stages of quarantine is through a consideration of the TV shows that dominated social conversation. As the business and technology trade magazine Fast Company identified, during lockdown for COVID-19, there was a new intensity to FOMO (fear of missing out) manifested around TV shows, as every few weeks there was another major show that “everyone is watching.”15 Lockdown television and its “affective structures” performed important “mood work.”16 Regardless of what platform was used—and viewers arguably became more agile than ever at switching between portals including Netflix, HBO Go and HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Disney+—the role of streaming services as a lockdown lifeline demonstrated that, even in a postnetwork, niche-viewing, internet age, television’s “signature achievement” continues to be its ability to produce powerful “feeling[s] of togetherness.”17
Psychoanalysts of the future looking to evaluate prevailing cultural states of mind during lockdown would do well to consider the TV shows people binge-watched in 2020. The first series they would have to confront is Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin, Netflix, 2020), the original lockdown blockbuster and proof positive that TV viewing during lockdown was not only about “kind TV.” A seven-episode documentary/reality-television hybrid, released in its entirety on Netflix on March 20, 2020, Tiger King was a series that brought people together, rather cruelly, to rubberneck at the lives of others.
A crucial feature of Tiger King as viral TV par excellence was that its bingeability extended beyond Netflix to social-media platforms. There was a therapeutic, if ethically dubious, value in extracting scenes from Tiger King and turning them into internet memes in order to crack jokes about lockdown life during a global pandemic. The bonding power of Tiger King memes demonstrates what Jenny Sundén and Susanna Paasonen call “affective homophily,” a term they use for “the love of feeling the same that brings people together through networked expressions of similar feeling.”18
Tiger King memes circulated across digital-clip culture as affective records of audience response to both its stranger-than-fiction narrative and the experience of lockdown life during COVID-19. As I have argued elsewhere, short-form, snackable clip culture (exemplified by trailers, memes, and GIFs) operates not in opposition to, but in tandem with, the immersive pleasures of long-form binge-watching in a digital-media ecology.19
As lockdown continued, and days of isolation turned into months, different meanings got attached to the activity of binge-watching. May 2020 was a significant turning point. The racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 was watched in horror by the world. The murders of Black citizens at the hands of the state had been captured on smartphones and shared across social-media platforms previously, but as Angela Davis has asserted, the lockdown for COVID-19 produced an “extraordinary moment . . . which gave us the opportunity to collectively witness one of the most brutal examples of state violence.”20 Collective outrage over this act of violence and the wider systemic racism from which it emerged led to people breaching quarantine rules to take to the streets in global Black Lives Matter protests.
Lockdown conditions and the synchronicity of collective viewing also appeared to create the space for a reframing of binge-watching as a politically productive activity, one tied to social-justice projects. Following the worldwide outrage over the murder of Floyd and continuing racist violence against Black subjects, listicles emerged of antiracist films and TV shows for viewers to watch as a means of converting them from unreflective couch potatoes into socially enlightened citizens. Examples included Seventeen magazine’s “17 Netflix Shows and Movies That Address Race and Racism,” and the website Medium’s “Diversifying Your TV Binging Is Part of Your Anti-Racist Journey.”21 Netflix, never one to miss a marketing opportunity (particularly one that can be woven into its brand identity as a “woke” platform) also launched its own “Black Lives Matter” collection of fiction films, TV shows, and documentaries.
However well-intentioned, such antiracist lists have been rightfully criticized by scholars such as Malini Guha and Racquel Gates on the grounds that they are simplistic and, in the words of Gates, “reduce Black art to a hastily constructed manual to understanding oppression, always with white people as the implied audience.”22 While these critiques are important and serve as reminders of the inherent limitations of list making, COVID culture’s recasting of binge-watching as a civic duty compels reflection on how viewing habits in the streaming era might be related to public pedagogy around social-justice struggles.
In my own research on rape culture and popular television, I have explored how TV shows designed for binge-viewing might serve as cultural objects for working through questions of gender justice. This took on a particular urgency during lockdown, as reports emerged of increased domestic violence and online sexual harassment and abuse. While serialized lockdown dramas such as Normal People (Lenny Abrahamson and Hattie McDaniel, BBC/Hulu, 2020), Sex Education (Laurie Nunn, Netflix, 2019–), and I May Destroy You (Michaela Coel, BBC/HBO, 2020) may have attained cultural currency for their intense depictions of intimacy at a time when people were beginning to feel “bereft” of “physical contact,” they also gained viral attention for how they foregrounded issues of sex, sexual violence, and consent.23
The extent to which the “bingeability” of these texts relates in any way to their political progressiveness is a matter for debate. Michaela Coel, the actor-writer-showrunner of I May Destroy You, has spoken of her distaste for binge-watching, and deliberately chose a weekly release schedule over a full series drop.24 In a Film Quarterly essay on how I May Destroy You reinvents rape television, Caetlin Benson-Allott argues for the value of Coel’s critical deployment of “broadcast temporality,” suggesting that it offered viewers “interludes within which to contemplate each episode, something that binge viewers lack.”25 In suggesting that recovery time between episodes opens up a space for self-reflexivity and critical thought on representation and trauma, Benson-Allott is aligned with Jason Mittell’s claim that “compressed viewing” is “individualistic and decontextualized, whereas serial viewing is potentially communal, social, and rooted in its historical moment.”26
However, the experience of lockdown during COVID-19 problematized oppositions between the individual and the communal, revealing the ways in which compressed viewing can be both social and grounded in a historical moment. Against an image of the binge watcher as a solitary figure huddled over a smart device, COVID-19 illuminated the profoundly social properties of binge-watching in the streaming era through the inventive ways in which people used technologies and platforms to negotiate new forms of digital intimacy and to find ways to watch together while physically apart. (Ironically, despite its initial weekly release pattern, I May Destroy You was avidly binge-watched following its initial broadcast). On Twitter, many viewers found a way of talking about their visceral responses to its challenging subject matter by sharing experiences of bingeing.27
At this writing, reports have emerged that Netflix is starting to experience a downturn in subscribers as the “pandemic boom wears off.”28 Yet it seems unlikely that the concept of binge-watching has run its course. In contrast to Graeme Turner’s claim that the concept has “outlived its usefulness for television studies,” I maintain that binge-watching is a remarkably versatile and persistent notion—in both academic scholarship and general cultural usage.29 Its continued relevance stems from how it captures something about the affective intensities of internet TV and user-directed viewing, which can be capitalized on by social-media corporations such as TikTok.30
In March 2021, a month that marked one full year of pandemic life, I conducted an informal survey on social media to inquire into which TV series individuals binge-watched during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. There were over 250 responses. The results were enlightening, especially in regard to how respondents parsed out the idea of bingeing. Respondents spoke of a “full binge” (watching an entire series in one sitting), a “semi-binge,” and “staggered bingeing.” Someone even introduced the idea of a “micro-binge”—that is, watching a TV show in short, sharp, concentrated bursts. They spoke of binge-watching as a situational practice; many parents, for instance, spoke with sadness of their inability to commit to a “full binge” amid juggling work, child care, and home learning during the pandemic. Fellow academics spoke of binge-watching as part of their teaching and research duties.
What was most striking, though, was the extent to which pandemic time was experienced in relation to a binge clock that counted down the seasons, months, days, hours, and minutes of lockdown life. As binge-watchers begin to lift their heads and try to imagine a postvirus world beyond screens and Zoom, there is value in reflecting on television’s function as an affective container for holding spectators close in times of loss and deprivation.
In 2016, the British media reported a Japanese study that linked binge-watching to an increased risk of blood clots. As the Daily Mirror headline ran, “Netflix and Kill Warning as Watching Too Much Telly Can Increase Risk of Dying,” www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/netflix-kill-warning-watching-much-8492515. The reach of the story was such that the National Health Service (NHS) felt compelled to create a web page (since deleted) refuting the claims of the study and reassuring worried members of the public that there was no real truth to it.
Ri Pierce-Grove, “Binge-Watching Can Soothe the Coronavirus Quarantine Blues, and No Need for Guilt,” USA Today, May 2, 2020, https://eu.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/05/02/coronavirus-quarantine-binge-watching-healthy-escape-column/3060846001/.
Christian Van Nieuwerburgh and Kirsty Gardiner, “How Watching TV in Lockdown Can Be Good for You—According to Science,” The Conversation, March 1, 2021, https://theconversation.com/how-watching-tv-in-lockdown-can-be-good-for-you-according-to-science-156147.
“The Best TV Shows to Binge in Lockdown,” Empire, February 23, 2021, www.empireonline.com/tv/features/the-best-tv-shows-to-binge-while-in-self-isolation/.
Mareike Jenner, “Introduction: Binge-Watching Netflix,” in Netflix and the Re-invention of Television (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), 161–82.
Cited in Deborah D’Souza, “Netflix Doesn’t Want to Talk about Binge-Watching,” Investopedia, April 22, 2020, www.investopedia.com/tech/netflix-obsessed-binge-watching-and-its-problem/.
Simon Chandler, “Netflix Traffic Hits All-Time Highs amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Says AT&T,” Forbes, March 24, 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/simonchandler/2020/03/24/netflix-traffic-hits-all-time-highs-amid-coronavirus-pandemic-says-att/.
References to “kind TV” appear, for example, on the MetaFilter community blogs www.metafilter.com/189814/Parks-and-Rec-is-30-Rock-isnt and https://ask.metafilter.com/351139/Looking-for-more-kind-TV.
Andreas Chatzidakis, Jamie Hakim, Jo Littler, Catherine Rottenberg, and Lynne Segal, The Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence (London and New York: Verso, 2020), 1.
Bridget Fonger, “Heart-Healing Binge-Watch: Apple TV’s Ted Lasso: A Mighty Salve for the Quarantined Heart,” Thrive Global, April 2, 2021, https://thriveglobal.com/stories/heart-healing-binge-watch-appletvs-ted-lasso/.
Lisa G. Perks, “Media Marathoning through Health Struggles: Filling a Social Reservoir,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 43, no. 3 (2019): 314.
Perks, 326, 327.
Joe Berkowitz, “How 2020 Changed the Way We Watch TV,” Fast Company, December 29, 2020, www.fastcompany.com/90588126/how-2020-changed-the-way-we-watch-tv.
Joke Hermes and Annette Hill, “Television’s Undoing of Social Distance,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 23, no. 4 (2020): 657.
Hermes and Hill, 658.
Jenny Sundén and Susanna Paasonen, Who’s Laughing Now? Feminist Tactics in Social Media (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 2020), 15.
Tanya Horeck, Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Era (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2019).
Cited in Tonya Mosley, “‘An Extraordinary Moment’: Angela Davis Says Protests Recognize Long Overdue Anti-Racist Work,” WBUR, “Here and Now,” June 19, 2020, www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/06/19/angela-davis-protests-anti-racism.
See Carolyn Twersky, “17 Netflix Shows and Movies That Address Race and Racism,” Seventeen, June 5, 2020, www.seventeen.com/celebrity/movies-tv/g32770452/netflix-shows-that-expertly-address-racism/; Faith Ann, “Diversifying Your TV Binging Is Part of Your Anti-Racist Journey,” Medium, “Cinemania,” June 28, 2020, https://medium.com/cinemania/diversifying-your-tv-binging-is-part-of-your-anti-racist-journey-1bfbbdb39243.
See Malini Guha, “Revisiting Lists in a Time of Rebellion,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 2, no. 5 (July 5, 2020), www.mediapolisjournal.com/2020/07/revisiting-lists-in-a-time-of-rebellion/; Racquel Gates, “The Problem with ‘Anti-Racist’ Movie Lists,” New York Times, July 17, 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/opinion/sunday/black-film-movies-racism.html.
Ita O’Brien, cited in Maighna Nanu, “In a Year of Lockdowns, TV Sex Scenes Became Our Lifeline for Intimacy and Sexual Realism,” Stylist, 2020, www.stylist.co.uk/entertainment/tv/sex-scenes-normal-people-lockdown/469461. For a fascinating analysis of how the TV series Sex Education and Trigonometry (Duncan Macmillan and Effie Woods, 2020–) are “underpinned by new narrative forms shaped by consent and respect,” see So Mayer, “Pan(dem)ic! At the Disco: Sex (and) Education in COVID-19-Era Television,” Film Quarterly 74, no. 1 (Fall 2020): 30.
For Coel’s thoughts on binge-watching, see Desiree Ibekwe, “Michaela Coel: ‘TV Is Unforgiving—But I’m Built for This,’” Broadcast, June 8, 2020, www.broadcastnow.co.uk/drama/michaela-coel-tv-is-unforgiving-but-im-built-for-this/5150183.article.
Caetlin Benson-Allott, “How I May Destroy You Reinvents Rape Television,” Film Quarterly 74, no, 2 (Winter 2020): 103.
Jason Mittell, “Mind the Gap: Brief Thoughts on Seriality from Berlin,” June 22, 2016, https://justtv.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/mind-the-gap-brief-thoughts-on-seriality-from-berlin/.
Dominic Rushe, “Netflix Records Dramatic Slowdown in Subscribers As Pandemic Boom Wears Off,” The Guardian, April 20, 2021, www.theguardian.com/media/2021/apr/20/netflix-records-dramatic-slowdown-in-subscribers-as-pandemic-boom-wears-off?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR2G77qacKXJygR6DD8yf8jSkayyuID9leyYtpssIuiWzX8oehblUKFtjUw.
Graeme Turner, “Television Studies, We Need to Talk about ‘Binge-Viewing,’” Television & New Media 22, no. 3 (September 2019): 229.
See Tina Kendall’s essay elsewhere in this “Special Focus” section.