Why we keep watching: Our love/hate relationship with TV

A question I get asked often as a fairly vocal “critic” of television shows is “why do you keep watching?” After hearing me gripe, nitpick and complain bitterly about different aspects of a show, most people quickly get sick of my negativity and wonder why I don’t stop watching it altogether.  Although I typically found the question aggravating, I realized the main reason I was so bothered by the question was that I didn’t have a good answer. If “House” was losing most of its original supporting cast in the later seasons and what I felt was the “soul” of the show with it, why did I feel the need to keep watching? Why did I watch “Lost” all the way to the end, even though I felt they were making it up in later seasons? Why will I feel obligated to watch new episodes of “Community” this spring when I am Dan Harmon’s biggest fan and I will likely find the show a shell of what it used to be in his absence?

I didn’t have a good answer to these and similar questions, and it frustrated me. Although some media scholars I have read would claim theories of “hate watching” or deem me an “anti-fan,” these ideas are fairly new concepts of research and are terribly confusing to non-academics, providing me little solace in answering these questions, This week, however, the answer dawned on me in the form of an interesting analogy.

Two friends of mine were discussing one of their significant others, and specifically why he seemed to always complain about her, but would never actually break up with her. “We’ve been in a relationship so long, good or bad, it’s comfortable,” he replied, causing me to come to an observation about watching TV. TV is in many ways that same “comfortable” relationship.

More so than other mediums, TV is enjoyed week after week. Movies, books and video games are “one night stands” in comparison to TV shows such as “Lost” or “House” that were viewed over a period of years. We dedicate portions of our week to them, we miss them when they go on hiatus, we enjoy them intimately in our own homes and when we fall behind with them we yearn to “catch up.” Change a few words or terms and watching TV seems scarily similar to an intimate relationship. I realized that with this eerie parallel between the two, I had also found the answer to my friends’ nagging questions.

Why do I keep watching “Walking Dead” even though I couldn’t stand most of, and complained about, the majority of season two? The same reason you are still with Debbie even though you seem to complain about everything she does!

We invest time and effort into TV in a way unparalleled by movies. Just like it takes a shockingly bad scene to make you walk out of a film, or a major fight to end a long term relationship, TV shows take the same kind of major event to change the status quo. Most viewers won’t stop watching a show they have already invested hours upon hours, weeks after week, of their lives to. We are comfortable”with these shows for better or worse and we stick around until a major event comes by.

Sometimes that major event comes in the form of season finales or premieres, major cast or staff changes or even a particularly bad story arc, but those are situations are typically few and far and between. Instead, we commit to shows and would rather chastise them relentlessly than give up on them because regardless of how bad we feel they have gotten, come next week they will be back on air and we get to feel that comfortable feeling once again.