Hamilton Herald Masthead Hamilton Herald


Front Page - Friday, June 9, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: The Waking dead, or binge watching ate my brain

I remember when I became an addict, almost to the day.

It was nearly September of 1994 when watching television for hours on end quit being a sign of mental illness and became the start of what I considered a healing process. The players of Major League Baseball had, inexplicably, gone on strike and hapless Commissioner Bud Selig was days away from cancelling the 1994 World Series.

“Inconceivable,’’ as Wallace Shawn said in “The Princess Bride.’’ Acceptance was slow to come. But it arrived, with the jolt of recognition that no one knew – even had a clue – when it would end. As someone who would argue that baseball was close to a religion to some of us, it was imperative that I find a new place to find peace of mind.

What I found was the crack of binge watching a television show. Ironically, my new drug was called “Law & Order,’’ and it was ubiquitous on television. Yeah, that means it was everywhere as we’d entered the Golden Era of syndication.

“Law & Order’’ had only recently begun its epic run in reruns on one of my favorite free cable networks, A&E. And, as it happened, it was rare that I would ever be home on a Tuesday night to catch the first-run episodes.

Being a sucker for a good cop show – “Dragnet,’’ “Adam 12,’’ “Hill Street Blues.’’ I even watched “The Rookies’’ – it was pure ecstasy to have a great hour-long show every night that was new to me. Right up until its bitter end, I remained a fan, but there was never any rush to that first year getting caught up on four-plus seasons of episodes – close to 100 of them, based on production back then.

A&E was my go-to network for shows like that for a time, and it was on A&E when I, by pure chance, connected with what I consider still to be one of the top two or three cop shows of all time – “Cracker.’’ It was set in England, and consisted of arcs of two-hour moves, and was definitely for grown-ups. It was also over far too soon and sent me on a desperate search for more.

The next phase of my descent was one that befell many – DVD box sets. Imagine – binge watching on your schedule instead of the network’s. Since Cracker was currently my new crack (as it were), I invested in a five-season series of boxed sets for a near-spy series called, “MI-6,’’ in this country (“Spooks” in the UK, where it was set), and I experienced for the first time that long, slow disappointment when a series goes on too long and fails to keep its eye on the ball.

While it had the best season-ending cliffhanger I’d ever seen, it had run its course through four seasons and lost two of the principal actors who made it compelling in the first place. The box set was shipped to McKay’s in my last scheduled visit.

All this time, while keeping abreast of the three principal “Law & Order’’ series (never made it to Chicago or L.A.), I was quickly becoming dependent on one of my favorite acronyms: DVR. While its uses continue to grab at you in many ways, the series that compelled me to learn its use was another NBC show: “The West Wing.’’

One consistent theme any show I got into had this: damn good writing. If a show surprised me, fooled me with a plot twist or a character reveal, I was pretty much hooked. But more than anything, for the whole of my adult life, I can say that the quality of the writing is what drew me or kept me around once I had sniffed out a quality show.

As a result, I will always buy into a series if someone like Robbie McGovern, Aaron Sorkin, David Kelley, Kurt Sutter, David Milch or Tom Fontana has his name on a script. McGovern was the only writer on Cracker; Sorkin brought “The West Wing” into being, Sutter was the genius behind the Shakespearean “Sons of Anarchy,’’ Milch was behind the innovative “NYPD Blue,’’ Fontana helped bring the world “Homicide,’’ and “Oz.’’

I have binged on every Sorkin series after taking in “West Wing’’ as it came. Likewise, “Sons of Anarchy;’’ but I truly wish that I could binge on SOA without knowing the outcome. It was an amazing experience, and I urge anyone contemplating a binge to consider Sutter’s magnum opus.

But more than writers, I’m a sucker for costume drama. If it’s about Vikings, Henry VIII or any other period drama, pirates, I’m in.

To brush up on my binging technique for this column, I chose this past weekend to take in all 12 hours of the new season of “House of Cards.’’ The Netflix political drama was a trendsetter in the binge-friendly concept of releasing every episode at the same time. The twisted government that it portrays cured me of having to watch the vastly overrated, “Scandal.’’ (You’ll notice that I did not include Shonda Rhimes among the writers I respected.)

The Netflix concept has been much appreciated due to my being a big fan of the Marvel comic character Daredevil. Having gotten over my disappointment of Ben Affleck as DD and Jennifer Garner the “exotic” assassin Electra, I was eager to embrace unknowns taking over those roles as Grant Gustin and Stephen Amell did with Flash and Green Arrow in the DC Universe.

Overall, I was not disappointed until the 12-episode snoozefest that was the “Iron Fist’’ miniseries. Sometimes the executive producer is the last one to realize that you’ve run out of ideas.

There is preparation required for a binge watch.

For starters, find a comfortable seat – but not one so comfortable that you doze off, miss something important and then find yourself clueless about what you’re watching. I settle for my work/writing chair, a beaten-up swivel model that has followed me from my last two jobs.

Prepare a menu. I usually revert to some of my more disgusting eating habits – being totally honest here – making a batch of homemade onion dip. I can only tolerate Ruffles or Fritos with my dip – none of that Tostados nonsense.

I decide that I require little or no sleep for the remainder of the weekend. But I don’t push it. No one’s keeping score.

Make sure there are no long-term distractions. The idea of answering a phone is ludicrous, but make sure you’ve cleared your workspace of all non-essential items. Sadly, most every scrap of paper in my current pile has some value.

Invite a friend? Not me, but if you are close to someone with a similar set of loser values – go for it. Me, I prefer to compare notes after the fact. I work alongside someone who thinks that, “Ray Donovan,’’ (the series) is the best thing since sliced bread – and it indeed stands alone as the greatest ever family drama about a mob enforcer and his murderous father. I will watch it, but no way on this Earth will I sit near as a self-proclaimed “expert” spoils stuff without meaning to.

I can always ask questions after the fact.

Binge-watching attire: discretion tells me I should only say that, if you’re watching it alone, no one knows if you’re wearing any pants. If you’re watching it with someone, you should at least make sure you wind up with the same clothes you started with. (This only applies to watching Showtime series.)

Incidentally, it’s okay to cleanse your palate, as it were, by watching something else in the middle of your binge. A ball game is harmless, since it does not require the same brain cells to comprehend what you’re seeing in a series. Also, OK for a movie, so long as it is in a completely different genre. Case in point, once I started watching “House of Cards,’’ Season 5 this past week, I stopped after two weeks and took in “Guardians of the Galaxy 2.’’

News is usually OK, but not during “House of Cards.’’

The following is DJ’s list of worthy shows or series to binge on. Some will be a weekend, others will take weeks. You know your time.

Absolutely worthy viewing, long form:

  • “The Walking Dead’’ (ongoing, 99 episodes so far)
  • “West Wing’’ (seven seasons, 156 episodes)
  • “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’’ (seven seasons, 144 episodes)
  • “Sons of Anarchy’’ (seven seasons, 92 episodes)
  • “House of Cards’’ (ongoing, 65 episodes so far)
  • “Vikings’’ (ongoing, 49 episodes so far)
  • “Orphan Black’’ (ongoing, 40 episodes so far, 10 remaining this summer)
  • “Black Sails’’ (four seasons, 38 episodes)
  • “Longmire’’ (ongoing, 53 episodes, 10 to come).

Note: Do not ever, EVER, try to binge-watch “Law & Order’’ past those weekend TNT marathons. Your life will disappear in the rear-view mirror. This also applies to “M*A*S*H’’ and “Cheers.’’

Special off-the-wall choice:

  • “Banshee’’ (trust me) (four seasons, 38 episodes). You’ll be cooler having experienced it.
  • “The Simpsons’’? Are you kidding me?
  • Superb shorter series:
  • Twin Peaks (original series, 35 episodes plus one theatrical film)
  • Cracker (25 episodes)
  • The Newsroom (25 episodes)
  • True Detective (season one ONLY, eight episodes)
  • Southbound and Down (29 very short episodes).

Game of Thrones? I’m … not ready for it quite yet.