Take heed: Television is fraught with time-taking tyranny


illustration by Yessenia Lopez

Maybe you’ve been there “” god knows I have. A pile of work lying at your side, but just enough time for a quick episode of my latest televised vice. I’ve done the math “” simple really. Of course one hour of an award-winning drama is less schedule damaging than a feature length film.

Nevertheless, almost every time I’ve made this decision, it’s ended with me wearily blinking at 3:45 a.m., with bloodshot eyes and the same amount of work to do as when I had started. It’d be easy to ask myself why I fall into this habit: Why do I value distraction more than satisfying my responsibilities? When will we as a society finally acknowledge the truly addictive nature of procrastination? Why the hell am I like this?

Instead, I think it’s much more interesting to take a look at the kind of storytelling these deceptively lengthed TV shows lend themselves to “” enjoyable, sure, but styled and oftentimes overly elaborate. Think about it: “Breaking Bad,” over the course of five seasons, tells the story of a man who is hesitant to enter a life of crime, until he determines it to be the only way to provide for and protect his family. Over the course of the almost 60-hour-long series, our protagonist finds himself completely absorbed by “” and addicted to “” the criminal world he once looked down upon.

Funny enough, the “Godfather” films tell a similar story, the key difference being that these films accomplish this in around nine hours.

When recalling a movie, one tends to naturally hit upon the major plot points: rising action, climax, falling action, et cetera. Michael Corleone returns to his family to find their criminal empire in turmoil. He resists efforts by the rest of his family to get him to take control, before ultimately succumbing to the role of a ruthless crime boss.

This all happens over the course of “Breaking Bad,” some cancer and character details aside. But over the course of a single episode, there’s but a few millimeters of progress made towards these story goals. Sure, there are explosive episodes where everything seems to come to a climax, but for every “Ozymandias” or “Face Off,” there’s a “Fly” or a “Grey Matter.” Dramatic television has perfected the method of tricking the viewer into thinking that they are watching a meaningful narrative by having each episode have some kind of plot; yet, when you look at the true importance of an episode to the importance of the overarching plot, it boils down to a few scenes, a few sentences: “This is the episode where Skyler discovers Walt’s business.”

That’s not to say that there isn’t a merit to this slow-burning way of storytelling. The long exposure one has to the characters in question could make it so that the audience becomes attached to them more genuinely than there is time for in a film, and make the eventual plot explosions that do occur all the more meaningful. But in terms of explaining why these sorts of shows can be so addicting, the fact that every episode has the same plot skeleton while only serving the grand story gradually can help to explain why we “” or at least I “” can never seem to get enough.

The tragedy here is that I’ve watched so many melodramatic, extended TV shows in the first place. Maybe tomorrow night, when the urge to procrastinate before a mountain of paperwork strikes me, I’ll do the counterintuitive thing and watch a movie, rather than catch up on “Game of Thrones” or “Shameless.” That way, at least once the credits roll, things will be over and done.