Skip to main content


Don Gillmor’s latest book, To The River: Losing My Brother, won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

The world is filled with gloomy, troubled, occasionally alcoholic, detectives. At least on TV. Most countries have at least one. They are understandably divorced and the sun rarely shines in whatever country they live and work. They tend to be a bit remote, harbour a dark secret and have instincts that allow them to solve cases that baffle others. They have trouble with their partners (True Detective), see ghosts (River), wonder why they’re in Belgium (The Break), and brood cinematically (all of them). They go home after work and drink alone in front of the TV, possibly watching a show about a gloomy detective.

Perhaps they have as much trouble as I do keeping them all straight – was the brilliant eccentric female detective Swedish? Or is that the New Zealand one? There are shows that stand out for me – River; Seasons 1 and 3 of True Detective – but many of the rest, some of which I enjoyed immensely, have blurred into one big noir pudding. I didn’t finish some of them. I drifted away, distracted by something shinier, or I forgot I’d started them.

The Continue Watching for Don file on Netflix is a graveyard that holds hundreds of corpses. There are movies that only got five minutes, series that got half of the first episode. The titles that crawl by are sometimes unfamiliar. When I ask people if they have any Netflix shows to recommend, I often get vague descriptions rather than a title. “It’s the one with the unsolved murder and it’s always raining” or “it has that woman and no one believes her, it’s that actress from the other one, the British series with what’s-his-name.” They don’t remember either.

There are reasons we don’t remember what we’ve watched. One is the sheer volume and arbitrary way we watch. But a University of Melbourne study concluded that with binge watching our memory of what we’ve watched fades faster than it does with weekly viewing. The TV shows we are watching are making us forget the TV shows we are watching. Binge watching is defined as three or more hours at a sitting, and most of us are bingers (75 per cent according to the study). Netflix claims that three of four viewers who streamed the first season of Breaking Bad did it in one sitting.

Bingeing is often a solitary activity. While others watch the same series, we don’t necessarily do it in concert. There isn’t the reinforcement that existed with weekly viewing. Back when everyone watched Seinfeld on Thursday night, the plot and best lines would be repeated on Friday, cementing them in our memory. The characters became part of our lives, while binged characters often pass through our lives in a few days, quickly replaced by others. Nine seasons of Seinfeld crawled by, and 22 years after the show ended we know the plot lines the way we know the lyrics to Beatles’ songs.

Yet last week’s shows are a blur. The record shows I watched a few episodes of Hache; nine minutes of The Fanatic with John Travolta; The Laundromat (27 minutes); an episode of Mad Men I thought I hadn’t seen then realized I had (24 minutes); and The Two Popes (14 minutes), which I wasn’t in the mood for but will watch at some point. There were others.

There is greater collectivity among younger viewers because whatever show is deemed hot is spread through social media. But this collectivity is short-lived. A season can be devoured in an evening. Then it’s on to the next one, and the next. The seasons and shows are left behind like discarded fast-food containers. Who remembers what was in them?

A study at University College London looked at 3,662 adults 50 or older and found that those who watched 3½ hours of TV daily showed a greater decline in verbal memory. So we’re becoming less articulate as well. Watching TV is a passive activity that leads to a less-focused brain, whereas reading or doing a puzzle promotes cognition. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. But why don’t we finish what we started?

In an interview, British novelist Ian McEwan said he never watches more than seven episodes of any TV series. He thought Breaking Bad was a work of genius but still didn’t watch to the end. He said he lacks persistence, but also said that in your 60s and 70s (he’s 71) you need to retain a curiosity about the world to remain mentally sharp. Television watching doesn’t qualify. And as we get older, we become more aware of time and how much is left and how much of it you want to spend watching Dirty John. I identify with Mr. McEwan’s viewing habits (although I did binge to the end of Breaking Bad. O Walter). Limitless choice is another reason we don’t watch to the end; there is always going to be something better than what you’re watching. And finally, we stop watching because we can. Nothing is ever lost. We can always come back to it. If we can remember what it is we’re coming back to.

Perhaps not watching to the end is why we bingers also reported less enjoyment of the shows we do watch. There are shows I enjoyed and remember distinctly – Breaking Bad, The Wire (though still grumpy about killing off Stringer Bell), Fleabag, Happy Valley, Catastrophe, Better Call Saul, Babylon Berlin. But there are other brilliant shows that have disappeared from my memory.

What makes an impression can now be measured. There is a new field of study called neurocinematics, which looks at how TV and film interact with the brain. Princeton psychologist Uri Hasson examined brain images using MRI while participants watched different shows. At the low end, a one-shot video of a Sunday concert in New York’s Washington Square Park engaged 5 per cent of the cortex. But a Hitchcock film spanned 65 per cent of the brain. The concert was an objective event, but Hitchcock manipulated us, building fear and suspense, creating a character we’re rooting for and false leads we tentatively follow. We engage on several levels.

Netflix has tried to measure when exactly we get hooked on a series. Their chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, said, “In our research of more than 20 shows across 16 markets, we found that no one was ever hooked on the pilot.” This bolstered the argument for releasing a whole season at once. People lingered, but weren’t hooked – meaning they watched to the end of the series – until farther in. For House of Cards it was Episode 3, Mad Men didn’t catch on until Episode 8. For Pretty Little Liars it was Episode 4. Even Breaking Bad, with its dazzling pilot, didn’t hook viewers until Episode 2, when Jesse Pinkman tries to dissolve a drug dealer in his bathtub and the whole disintegrating mess falls through the ceiling.

In the end, we get the television we deserve. “Because You Watched …” – this vaguely accusatory Netflix category is disheartening proof. Because I watched eight minutes of RED, I deserve The Expendables 2. If there is a moral centre to TV viewing, it is found here. You’ve already sinned with Rush Hour (Jackie Chan), now you have to watch In Hell (Jean-Claude Van Damme) as penance. Enter the nine circles of Netflix at your own risk.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.