I spent last Sunday binge-watching an entire season of Hemlock Grove, the Netflix original series about werewolves or some shit. I get a limited number of days on this Earth, and that's where one of them went. Mom and dad, if you're reading this (please stop), it's important that you know that when you were raising me, you were preparing me for an entire day of drinking beer, eating delivery food, popping Vicodin, and ignoring my friends because I was "too busy working."
David Christopher Bell
Comedy writers put on pants only for the most strenuous of tasks.
It's true that sucking down an entire season of bad TV like a Red Bull on a lazy Sunday left me drained and smelly and seriously harmed my relationship with my cat, but that's not the only problem we're dealing with here. Because Hemlock Grove isn't just bad. Oh, goodness no. It scoffs right through the humble meadows of incompetence to scale the virgin peaks of terribleness. It is The New Badness, a shade of horrible that our species has never encountered before. And unless we take action now, it's poised to reshape the entire telescape in its own warped image.
(Note: I'm going full tin-foil-hat conspiracy theorist today. If that bothers you, please take solace in the fact that some day you'll be dead, and everyone you ever loved will be dead. All you ever created or care for will wither and die. The Earth will grow cold, the sun will extinguish, and it will be as if we were never here. All because of this fucking show.)
"Binge-watching" isn't really the phrase to describe what I did to myself with Hemlock Grove last Sunday, because "binge" implies an excessive consumption of something, and spending all day watching television is just what we do now. You might argue that this is a sign that Western Culture has reached its decadent peak, and you'd be totally right. Good job. I know that I, personally, have never felt more like an emperor than I did during this binge. I lounged with an air of tepid boredom in my soft, blue couch-chariot as diligent slaves dragged me past an endless display of sordid entertainment.
David Christopher Bell
Deeply did I drink of my Scotchy, caffeinated elixir.
This is the new normal, and TV writing has changed to adapt. If you watch an old episode of The X-Files, the presentation, particularly the exposition, seems weirder than the alien-government-conspiracy mysteries: Dana Scully has to frequently remind us that she's a skeptical genius who could rewire our nervous system into an auto-harp in 30 seconds flat, because casual viewers may have forgotten or new viewers may not know.
But that's not what TV is anymore. When a show is released in a big 13-episode chunk, it's designed to be binged. We don't need as much hand-holding because we're watching the show on our own terms, and the writers are adapting.They're not writing for people who watch an episode a week, they're writing for people who are sitting down and watching 13 in one day, like some kind of irredeemable fucking lunatic.
While it's true that this has allowed some truly great shows to happen (I hear Orange is the New Black is great, but I haven't watched it, because I was too busy watching Hemlock Grove, because I only make terrible decisions), it doesn't change one fact: writing good TV is harder than writing shitty TV. So we're still going to be hit in the face with a big shit-nail, pounded in place by a crap-hammer, wielded by a carpenter that is just a pooplicate of a person. And these new tools, that allowed Orange to be so good (I've heard), also make bad TV easier than ever, because ...
Video streaming allows us access to an utterly new medium: TV not as serialized storytelling but as a video book. If each episode is a chapter, we can enjoy it on our own terms, around our own schedules, stopping and starting anywhere we want, whenever we want. Just like a novel, except with titties and blood that we won't have to imagine. Right?
No, because TV is not the same as reading. I know that sounds like the kind of old-person ranting more befitting a senile middle-school teacher than a young and hip Internet comedy writer like me (see: earlier pictures of me, demonstrating my hipness), but in this case I have science: Reading is better for your brain than watching TV is.
Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Around the world, librarians are having orgasms and don't know why.
When you're reading, your brain not only has to interpret words into ideas, it has to pay close enough attention to context so it can add inflection to dialogue and remember, like, whether the characters are currently having kinky sex in a damp, cold bathroom or a crashing spaceship. When you're watching a movie or TV, you don't have to do any of that. You're shown exactly where the kinky sex is happening, and how kinky it is, so imagination is ... basically unnecessary. Hell, you don't even have to decide where to look or what to focus on: The camera does all that for you. This has nothing to do with the inherent quality of one medium over another, because even if one isn't better than the other, it's still super clear which one is less taxing on the brain muscle, right?
OJO Images/OJO Images/Getty Images
Aww yeah baby, work that skull-putty.
Your brain enters a "reactive state" where instead of thinking critically or analyzing the stuff you're watching, you're just passively absorbing it like a big sopping couch-sponge. OK, fine: I'm the one passively absorbing it like a big sopping couch-sponge. Which means I'm not going to notice if, say, I watch a show where nothing fucking happens between episodes 3 and 11 please God just end my suffering, because my brain is just wired to react to colors and emotions.
And this is where all that conspiracy shit really takes off, because ...
Infinite Sorrow and Loss
I'm going to say something really fucked up, but I need you to stay with me, OK? Just let me justify it.
Potato chips are not delicious.
Wait. Seriously, don't go, I'm nothing without you. Really look inside your own heart and ask yourself the question that everyone else is too afraid to face head-on: "Are potato chips really delicious, or am I just driven compulsively to eat them by a shadowy part of my own brain that I don't understand?" If you can't remember, just go get a potato chip ...
I tried to bring some for illustrative purposes, but I ... it got ugly.
... and if you're honest with yourself, you'll discover that the latter is true. They're just grease and salt and nothingness. Trust me, I've sat there and scarfed them down with the best of you, but I wasn't fulfilling a biological need, I was just indulging a weird compulsion. I love potato chips. But they are not delicious -- they just won't let you stop eating. That's the difference. And Hemlock Grove is the potato chip of television.
In the world of selling stuff (i.e., capitalism) to schmucks (i.e., us), the only thing better than quality is addictiveness. If you can make a quality product that people like and want to buy, you're going to do pretty well ... until someone else figures out how to make a shitty version of that product that people have to buy. If you don't believe me, just look at all the money Candy Crush has made. Hey, that's not even the best example: I should've mentioned Kim Kardashian's weird game. You've seen it happen with food, you've seen it happen with video games, and now it's happening with TV.
Remember how I said that nothing happens in Hemlock Grove between episodes 3 and 11? That's not hyperbole -- the story literally doesn't move forward, aside from, I guess, Peter Werewolf and Letha (pronounced like "who gives a shit, fuck that name") entering into a relationship. Over the entire first season, we have almost enough plot to fill one good episode of The X-Files. The rest of the screen time is filled with one of three things. Gore:
And the two leads looking really, really cool:
Hee hee, but let's not forget this picture:
Ha! Look at their dumb faces. They look like-
David Christopher Bell
Sure, this show didn't invent shallow entertainment, but because of binge TV it's a whole new, more terrifying version. It's easier than ever to just consume all day with your brain turning to a twisted, squishy mass by the end. If this show had been broadcast like a normal show, with time between episodes to give viewers a chance say, "Wait a minute -- that was the dumbest goddamn thing I've ever seen," it would've been canceled before the third episode ever aired. But because it begs you to consume it in one sitting (the first few episodes end with lame cliffhangers where someone will, say, accuse a character of murder in one episode's final seconds only to go, "Wait, that was stupid" in the opening moments of the next episode), you can't help but scarf the whole thing down in one nightmarish sitting. Each episode has enough flavor to make you feel like you're enjoying something but not enough substance to make you satisfied -- just like a potato chip. And because of that ...
I'm kinda skirting a pretty important issue here: I watched the entire first season of Hemlock Grove in one day -- and then I started in on the second season the day after that. Now, I don't know if I've made this clear: I am not a fan of this show. But I have to see what happens next, or else I'll never know, and that feels like a loss to me. A loss of what? I don't know, man. I can just feel in my balls that I am missing out on a mysterious something, some unattainable satisfaction that sings me a sweet siren song even now.
flashfilm/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Like a man with a freshly broken heart, I see my lover's face wherever I wander.
I tell myself that there are two reasons I will watch a show, read a book, play a video game, or consume whatever media. The first is because it challenges me in some way: Spec Ops: The Line made me re-examine what video games were and how I played them, and The Mysteries of Udolpho made me realize that some pieces of 19th-century literature are utter fucking trash. I gave that media some of my time, and in return it made me a better person -- wiser, with a broader perspective on the world. The second, far more common reason I consume media is because it's fun: Pacific Rim, Call of Duty, Terry Pratchett books -- none of those things improve me as a person, but they enrich my life by being entertaining. They're fun. I give them my time, and in return I get a lot of laughter and excitement and joy. Which are fine.
But Hemlock Grove fits neither of the two core reasons I consume media. After a 13-hour binge on that show, I felt nothing. And that wasn't just the massive dose of Vicodin, I just have no emotional reaction to anything that happened on my screen. Even the idea of picking apart plot details or analyzing the subtext just makes me feel sleepy. I gave that show 13 hours of my time, and in return all I got was 13 hours closer to death. And yet, I'm going to watch more. Tonight? By the time this article runs, I'll probably have finished season 2, and, coincidentally, will be completely out of Vicodin.
Image Source/Photodisc/Getty Images
Don't worry about me, I know where to get more.
This is the future of television and media. Art is changing from a source of enrichment to a numbing agent, an anesthetic to ease our transition into old age, immobility, and death. The unadulterated human experience has become an inconvenience, and television is the relief. In the laboratory of mass media, we have bred our own apocalyptic virus. Our end comes not from the infernal heat of a nuclear blast or even from the barrel of a gun; it comes from the sedating embrace of our couch and the cold glow of an HD TV. This show -- this fucking werewolf-vampire-murder-mystery bullshit -- is the prototype for our end, the antecedent to the extinction of our species.
I did not much care for Hemlock Grove. It is a bad show.
For more from Sarge, check out 5 Popular Medications You Won't Believe Mess With Your Brain and 6 Movie Good Guys You Didn't Notice Were Total Hypocrites.