Watch Again

When going through your binge-viewing history feels like replaying your own serial domestic drama

I first used the Netflix “Viewing Activity” page in 2013, when My Little Pony kept showing up under “Recently Watched.” After confirming that some unknown person was doing unauthorized viewing of My Little Pony, I changed the password and closed the log, finding it sinister that all my viewing history was contained in one irrefutable record. My attitude toward my own metrics was, roughly speaking, that anything there was to really know about myself was something I didn’t really want to know.

Several life events have taken place in the intervening years. The most significant is that I had a baby, an experience which involved an unexpected amount of data analysis. First I wanted to become pregnant, so I spent time scrutinizing a calendar, trying to draw conclusions about my body from inscrutable signs. Once I was pregnant, there was data everywhere. My blood was run through an algorithm that spat out the odds of calamity. Glucose was measured, and the beats of the fetal heart. Data brought order to the chaos of the baby’s early weeks, when you are supposed to keep track of how much it is eating and for how long, how many diapers, how many scoops of formula or which breast.

The baby also caused me to quit my job, not to spend more time with it, but because I found my particular arrangement of working in an office and caring for a baby and writing on the internet untenable. So I started working from home as an editor and a freelance writer, and my baby goes to daycare, but for slightly less time than she once did. Now that I don’t go to an office I’m convinced my acquaintances don’t really believe I’m working; sometimes I don’t believe it myself. My work calendar and my home calendar are the same, I notice: I record a doctor’s appointment, a deadline, an informational interview, an X where I might have ovulated. I’ve become cautiously curious about some of the trails I leave behind. As I consider the new topography of my mostly homebound days, I decide to return to the Netflix Viewing Activity.

I was surprised first to see the Netflix log as a sentimental object, wrought from years of my own life. It is kind, as archives go. It’s a map marked with pins

Since I’ve been home it feels like I’ve been watching more TV. It’s not actually a TV, but my laptop, which is also where I work; the corporeality behind our everyday phrases changes at a slower pace than the technology we use (“I don’t own a TV” is an absurdly threadbare humblebrag in 2016). Our mementos signify differently too, in the 21st century. I was surprised first to see the Netflix log as a sentimental object, wrought from years of my own life. Pleasingly, the page scrolls all the way down — no clicking through — to the account’s creation in 2007, when my now-husband and I moved in together. It is kind, as archives go — much gentler than, god forbid, your old emails. It’s a map marked with pins: Here’s where we bought a discount projector from Costco to watch movies on the wall (The Outlaw Josey Wales). Here’s where I made our wedding invitations (Lost). Here’s where our baby was six days old (Black Mirror, episode one). This last is especially poignant. I want nothing more than to remember those early days, and I will take any road that leads me to them. The Netflix log does it; I see the three of us on the couch in the dark, the projection flickering on the wall. The baby lies on me; I drink wine; I feel everything very keenly. I have a little lock of her hair in a box, but memory doesn’t adhere to it exactly the same way.

How many of our future mementos, I wonder, will be digital, and how will we interpret and store them? The terse iPhone Notes retained in my laptop grant access to surprisingly vivid memories I’m desperate to keep. A list of names we thought about. The timing of contractions. The night my milk came in. Her first fever and what we did about it. I switched phones recently and I can’t bring myself to get rid of the old device because it has the stupid Baby Tracker app on it, with which I dutifully noted her first weeks of eating, sleeping, excreting. People of our parents’ generation never tire of telling us that today’s parents are distracted, overstimulated, overburdened with information. And yes, I dislike the idea of tracking my movements toward future improvement. But I love these random access memories — these maps of days otherwise lost to time.

Less dreamy, from Netflix I also learned that in the last five months, which is how long I have been working from home, I have watched 196 episodes of The Office. I have watched 28 episodes of Mad Men and 34 episodes of Arrested Development. These add up to about 106 hours of TV, not including those things I watched at night with my husband using other means (Amazon Prime or someone’s HBO Go). In the six months prior, when I worked in an office, I logged just 61 hours on a variation of the same shows, with some Parks and Recreation thrown in.

Certainly when you work from home there are more opportunities for dicking around. But my truly wasted time is accounted for: Like most freelancers, the way I dick around during work time is to go on Twitter and feel jealous, whereas if I’m watching Netflix, I’m simultaneously doing housework. Specifically, I am folding laundry, cooking food, doing dishes, changing the cat litter, vacuuming, spot-cleaning the carpet, looking at random pieces of paper and deciding where they should go. I am organizing the closet. I am putting puzzle pieces back inside the puzzle boxes and stacking the puzzle boxes against the wall. The only way I can do these things, it seems, is with the soothing tones of The Office droning in the back — 71 hours’ worth of it.

I’m accustomed to thinking about tasks as things you complete and forget about, like films. But the season of “finished” housework is vanishingly short; it’s a serial mini-drama

The amount of time doesn’t seem depraved, but I feel depraved, primarily because I have seen every single one of these episodes before — many, many times. I can anticipate too many lines, with parts of my brain I could have used for so many other things. I like to reread books, and that doesn’t feel wrong. But The Office is dumb, I think. Why do I watch it so much? While the age of streaming video has ushered in the age of seemingly limitless new shows to watch, it has also guaranteed me an infinite viewing loop, an entire series now behaving as an extended Vine. The smorgasbord that Netflix et al. make available has paradoxically caused me to watch more of less programming.

Just as I refer to “watching Netflix” as “watching TV,” so, evidently, do old metaphors and patterns assert themselves in content. When I think about women watching TV and doing housework, I think of soap operas, women standing in front of the ironing board while some drama plays out on a screen. In 1979, USC professor Tania Modleski faulted her peers for ignoring soap operas as a rich site of information both about narrative practices and women’s lives in her essay “The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Operas.” She found something essentially feminine in the form, “a unique narrative pleasure” that accords “closely with the rhythms of women’s lives in the home.” Critics, feminist and otherwise, had decried the thrall of women to the “progress without progression” represented by soaps, but Modleski found something to admire about the formal possibilities of neverendingness: Housewives were accustomed to a constant hum of activity that was constantly being interrupted, a constraint that soap operas had to work around and which they replicated in plot developments. “Like the (ideal) mother in the home,” she wrote, “we are kept interested in a number of events at once and are denied the luxury of a total and prolonged absorption.”

Modleski’s essay is almost 40 years old, and the contours of my life — my particular combination of privilege and constraint — are very different than those of the women she describes. Nonetheless, I found curious resonance in the essay. The worst thing about housework, I always think, is that it doesn’t end. No sooner have you made everything tidy then you dirty a dish, or drop your laundry in the corner, leave a glass on a table. I’m accustomed to thinking about tasks as things you complete and forget about, like films. But the season of “finished” housework is vanishingly short, like the life of a gnat. You have to find a way to enjoy the process, or you are doomed to disappointment as you seek to enjoy its fleeting effects. It’s a serial mini-drama, completely predictable, often maddening.

I was surprised to see the origins of the shows I watch in soap operas as Modleski describes them. She claimed in 1979 that “soap operas may be in the vanguard not just of TV art but of all popular narrative art,” and this seems borne out in our century. Matt Zoller Seitz recently wrote that “all serialized dramas ultimately owe their existence to the daytime soap opera, an open-ended form.” Modleski quotes another scholar, Horace Newcomb, who observes that serial soaps “offer us depictions of people in situations which grow and change over time, allowing for a greater ‘audience involvement, a sense of becoming a part of the lives and actions of the characters they see.’” Certainly the Netflix log indicates an overall household drift away from movies to shows (it’s a long time since that first screening of The Outlaw Josey Wales).

If today’s seriality is a legacy of the soap opera, even the content seems to have recycled and repeated in curious ways. Modleski in 1979 listed some of the “most frequent themes” of daytime TV, which are spread around all over my go-to shows: “the great sacrifice” (Pam, also Jim); “the winning back of an estranged lover/spouse” (Pete and Trudy); “marrying her for her money, respectability” (Ken); “the unwed mother” (Angela, also Joan); “deceptions about the paternity of children” (Angela, Joan); “career vs. housewife” (Betty and Francine); “the alcoholic woman” (Meredith). And what is Arrested Development if not a comic version of Modleski’s charge that the soap opera presents “the viewer with a picture of a family which, though it is always in the process of breaking down, stays together no matter how intolerable its situation may get.”

Soap operas are a form suited to the rhythms of domestic labor, but I still feel guilty about my method of consumption. As it happens, the feeling of guilt is also a legacy of the soap opera days

Seitz argued that the neverending drama “is being supplanted by stories that have more shape, more obvious beginnings and endpoints.” This gestures, he posits, toward our need for finiteness in a chaotic world. I still cling to the endless shows, but it’s in their repetition that they bring me the most comfort. The care I feel for characters is amplified by the open-ended form; but perhaps speaking to Seitz’s point, the not-caring, too, is amplified by the reassurance of foreknowledge, the relegation to background that repetition allows. It’s the comfort of one kind of neverendingness combined with the comfort of another, one that I’ve imposed.

I know now, thanks to Modleski, that it is a form defined by and suited to the rhythms of domestic labor, but I still feel guilty about my particular method of consuming it. As it happens, the feeling of guilt is also a legacy of the soap opera days; it may, in fact, be integral to women’s television consumption. Marsha Cassidy, in What Women Watched, writes of a deliberate move by the television industry to reduce the distracted state that the soap opera format encouraged. Studios and advertisers worried that women’s habit of watching television while doing light housework, as they once did with radio, reduced the opportunities to sell them things during commercial breaks. Studios found themselves “trapped between marketing the medium as a work companion for women during the day — and alarming advertisers — or furthering viewing habits that could be censured for promoting sloth and idleness in homemakers — by luring more women to the couch.” Ultimately, money talked, and the couch, and its attendant sloth and idleness, was presented as a deserved indulgence: “All right, ladies, out of the kitchen, into the living room. Turn the TV set on now!” went one radio promo. But it was always laced with guilt: One NBC executive suspected “the major deterrent” to watching daytime shows was “the feeling of guilt it arouses.”

Couch shame inflected the daytime viewing experience. Louise Spence, in Watching Daytime Soap Operas, paints a pictures of researchers who invoke “images of the socially inept, the rejected, those with low self-worth or an incomplete identity: the psychologically needy. It is assumed that their lives are otherwise uneventful, unrewarding, or insufficient.” The viewer is “captured by the evils of banality” represented by her soap opera “addiction.” The women Spence interviewed for her book invariably spoke of their viewing habits as though they were taboo. The television was “trash,” they told her, maybe because it was something they were doing when they could have been doing something else. I understand how they feel. On Reddit I find people like me: “Does anyone else just watch The Office on continuous loop?” (Yes.) “When binge-watching The Office, what episodes do you skip over?” (“Scott’s Tots,” “The Mafia,” “Grief Counseling,” “The Banker,” “China.”) I worry that the habit is the mark of a weak and ever-weakening character, or, most worryingly, of a sick one. From the “Depression” subreddit: “Does anyone else watch the same shows over and over again to find comfort in them?” (Yes.)

The Atlantic tells me that we re-watch for reasons of nostalgia, or self-discovery: “Reengaging with the same object, even just once, allows a reworking of experiences as consumers consider their own particular enjoyments and understandings of choices they have made.” When I think about the choices I’ve made, the TV themes I return to again and again seem somewhat on the nose, psychologically speaking. They highlight certain voids left by abdication from office life. I find myself drawn to Don Draper’s forceful, unjust expressions of masculine professional power. “There’s not one thing you’ve done here that I couldn’t live without,” I declaim to the cats while I fold laundry or send an editing email. I cringe when Betty’s dad tells her, “You’re a housecat. You’re very important, and you have little to do.” The Office, meanwhile, gives me an office, a highly problematic one like many offices of my experience. (Who will answer for Jan’s character arc, a great crime against feminism? Why doesn’t Pam finish that goddamn art program? Why does love, for Pam and Jim, mean the alternating sacrifice of their professional interests?)

I rearranged my day-to-day life because I wanted to be an “art monster,” a basically self-explanatory term coined by Jenny Offill, but also because I wanted a serene home, reasonably clean, put to rights during the afternoon and enjoyed at night. I wanted a pediatrician appointment to not be a logistical clusterfuck. All cultural narratives point to the incompatibility of art monsters and domesticity, but I didn’t care. So, like soap operas, like most women who would be art monsters, I am working within a particular set of circumstances, embellishing on patterns, trying to make the narrative most out of the format of my day. My digital trail, what I choose to investigate, anyway, tells its own story: that I’m highly sentimental, a little obsessive, a little basic. It tells me I need the soothing repetition of Michael Scott’s buffoonery, Don Draper’s reinventions, Jim and Pam’s love. It seems I’m in good, or at least broad company. It seems, for the moment, I’m happy here.

Lydia Kiesling is the editor of the Millions. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Guardian, the New Yorker’s Page-Turner, and elsewhere. She is working on a novel.