Nobody I know is addicted to documentary. Everybody I know who binges on Netflix, like I do, is addicted to television series.
The difference between the two are emotions. Documentaries present facts while television shows, drama and comedy alike, presents emotion. And nobody I know is addicted to cold, objective facts, and everybody I know who is addicted, is addicted to emotion.
1- Emotions are addictive. The great spectrum of human experience moves us deeply, from the surface of our skin to the depth of our cellular activity. Emotion changes the depth and pace of our breath, our heart rate, the expansion and contraction of our musculature, and the chemistry of the substances released in our blood stream. The more we feel, the more we move - and movement is life.
2 - Emotions are contagious. The characters of television shows express emotions which touch us through empathetic resonance. We feel what the characters feel, and in the course of a fifty minutes episode, we get to experience a wide range of emotional feelings. We tense up when conflict arises, breathe with relief when the conflict is solved; we cry the loss of a character’s loved one, cheer the the triumph of a hero, resent the mean scheming of a baddie, and secretly rejoice in the payback revenge.
3 - Validity of experience. Societal rules demand restraint in our emotional expression. Depending on the flavour of a particular culture we belong to, some emotions are encouraged to express, while others are frowned upon. Nothing human is foreign to us, and we are fully capable of feeling the full spectrum of human experience, but real life calls us to conceal what societal convention deems as undesirable traits, drives, impulses and emotions. However, when we watch an emotionally charged drama, we are freed from all restraints, and free to identify with any character at any time, to try on her predicament for size, and feel her feelings. This side of the television screen allows us incomparable permission to be fully human, from whore to saint, pauper to king, servant to master, compassionate to revengeful, even if for only fifty minutes at a time. We get a better deal than even the actors themselves, as they can only depict one hero, while we are free to juggle several personalities all at once. This exercise is so fulfilling that it is therapeutic. When I lead a coaching client through a voice dialogue practice, I see the same kind of fulfillment, only personalized to the client’s own inner heroes as they show up, minus the landscape setup and period costumes.
4 - Connection and bonding. Emotions connect people with each other and with animals. Drama characters may not reveal all of their feelings to each other, but they reliably reveal their interiors - feelings, motives, intentions, reactions and drives - to us, the spectators. We get to witness the psychological interiors of characters with greater depth and accuracy than we do with our off-the-screen loved ones. Our family members may hide things from us, while the drama heroes live in full disclosure. And we listen! We are more likely to check our phone while our friends and family members talk to us than when the television characters speak. As spectators we get a taste of an idealized form of connection: the other is fully transparent to you, and you are fully present with them! This creates a sense of bonding in you, and if you think that this is not true, watch how sad you feel when a hero (man or beast) gets hurt or dies.
5 - Projections are uni-directional. Whatever biases and moods you have when you sit in front of the screen to watch your favourite drama, you can always be sure that you can say anything you please to the characters, declare your endless love, fire insults at them, smother them in harsh criticism and show them the finger without the risk of reactive responses from the heroes. For the length of a full episode, you get to be as transparent and openly expressive towards your on-screen friends (and foes) as they are with you. No fake smiles, no lies or deceit, no putting up a face. You find yourself in a virtual reality of risk-free intimacy with people (and animals) that you love to love, and love to hate. You end up fulfilled and unscarred.
Clearly, watching drama characters living their lives is not the same as you living yours. Is it even useful to spend any time in front of the screen when you could go dance, eat, make love, hike, fight or travel with real people?
My theory, as I am binging on Downton Abbey, is yes, it is useful, and here is why:
A well-thought and researched television series such as Downton Abbey depicts its characters as layered and complex human beings. You are presented with only a few extremes of either super-virtuous or super-villain heroes; the rest are shown as fallible human beings, with strengths and faults, trying as best as their past conditioning and present predicament allows. And yet, you fall in love with all of them! You may cheer their kind and appropriate action, and protest their mean or stupid thing they say or do - but you love them nevertheless, and wish the best for them.
And this is exactly the useful practice we should apply in our real life relationships. Neither you, nor your loved ones, friends and family members are super-heroes or super-villains. Everyone you know, beginning with your own good self, is a fallible human being, with faults and strength, and under the influence of a myriad factors in past experiences and present predicaments. And while you cheer good deeds and protest bad ones, according to your views and values, you separate the doer from her doing, and love her dearly, because you connect with her, reveal yourself to her, listen to her as she reveals herself to you, and bond with her not because she or you are perfect, but merely because you share a great deal of emotion, and the two of you bond so well.
And this, my friend, turns Netflix watching from entertainment into a practice worth getting addicted to.