The Binge Watcher

Jonathan Howell

Franklin Paul sat on the couch barely aware that it was a clear night. He had one hand on his iPhone and another on the remote. Through the window the moon hung full and large with a bluish tint as if illuminated by a billion LEDs.

Franklin was not fat and not slim. He had a cherub-like quality that made him look younger than his true age. He felt young too, although he didn’t exercise or play any sports. He preferred to be lying down, and if that was not possible, sitting.

He had slunk from the dining room to the couch that evening after dinner with his wife and child. His movements were even more efficient than usual as if he were conserving energy. He slowed down his breathing and widened his eyes to take in the bright pixels and deep digital blacks of the flat-screen television. It created a warmth from his toes to his brain. His wife went to tuck their daughter into bed, leaving Franklin alone in the TV room. It occurred to Franklin that he could watch the entire last season of The Fuse that night.

His job as a property manager allowed for some flexibility. Tomorrow he could sleep in and come in late. But it was more than the ability to sleep in or actual interest in the show that fueled his desire. He saw it as an Olympian intellectual feat in focus, a marathon of entertainment. After watching the entire season in one sitting, he was sure he would obtain some new revelation or understanding that would not be possible if he watched the show over a longer period of time; a binge-watching session would intensify his understanding of the complex series. He wanted to know how it worked.

Franklin put a pillow behind him and sat upright to stay awake and focused. He detested people who fell asleep watching shows, as if they were sleeping on the job. He planted his feet firmly on the ground, set the remote nearby on an arm rest, loaded up the Netflix app on the television, and pulled up The Fuse, season three, a gritty detective procedural taking place in Oakland, California. The first episode focuses on a young man who goes to a party, buys some drugs, and overdoses. The wealthy, grieving parents are at his funeral, and in the background is Lydia, one of the show’s main characters.

The episode ended, leaving Franklin intrigued. When the countdown appeared during the credits, Franklin clicked to skip to the next episode. Now, the show re-introduces the rest of the main characters: a male police detective named Brad, the police captain, a city councilman, and, of course, Lydia, a female private investigator hired by the family to figure out who sold the drugs that killed the son. The show cuts to Lydia losing focus while interviewing the dead boy’s parents. It was a familiar story: good student, athlete, never did drugs before. Meanwhile, Brad is at the police station bored out of his mind typing an arrest report for a small-time robbery. The police chief drops a new case on his desk — the overdose death of the boy, the same case as Lydia.

Like the prior two seasons, these characters would find themselves in situations where they were forced to share information, work together, and deal with their sexual tension. When the second episode ended, Franklin’s wife came down. It was just after 11 p.m., and she asked him if he was going to bed. Franklin told her he was not tired and planned to stay up late.

The Netflix menu showed a total of ten episodes, two down. Each episode was a little less than an hour long. If he watched the rest of the episodes, skipping credits, he would be done by around 7:00 a.m. He could sleep for two hours and be at work by 10:30. Franklin smiled. He was pleased with himself and his plan. The world was filled with amazing shows of such high quality, and he was lucky enough to experience it in the way it was intended: an unbroken stream of story. He again straightened himself and prepared for complete attention like a scholar opening a seminal text. For a brief flash, he imagined himself impressing colleagues and friends as he recounted the plot lines of each episode with great clarity and continuity. He clicked the next episode. The male police detective, Brad, interviews people who were at the party and eventually arrests a teenager who is believed to have brought the drugs. Lydia finds out about the arrest and that Brad is now on the case. She gets upset with Brad for not telling her about the arrest earlier.

Franklin’s phone vibrated. It was a text from a friend in his fantasy football league looking to gloat over some recent success. Franklin paused the show and began to type a message back before stopping himself. If he was ever going to get through the season tonight, he would have to cut out distractions. He put his phone on silent and placed it face down on the coffee table. He resumed the episode and watched as it cut to a city councilman working with local business leaders to push a pro-business initiative. The episode ends with Brad in the interrogation room with the drug-dealing teen. Lydia watches through a two-way mirror.

Franklin felt comfortable. The couch seemed softer, more luxurious. He felt awake, alive, and hungry for another episode. Netflix queued it up and counted down. Franklin waited eagerly. The binge watching was turning out to be as good as he expected. The sum of the episodes was greater than its parts.

Just before the next episode started, Franklin sprung out of the couch to get a coke. The cold can felt good in his hand. The pop and hiss when he opened it sounded crisp. It tasted sweeter. His senses were elevated. He felt more alive. These were signs, he knew. I love it when a plan comes together, Franklin thought.

The next episode delivered. The drug dealer confesses after an intense interrogation that includes some mild physical violence and light psychological torture. The drug is called Twilight, he tells him, a new synthetic compound not yet on any police or DEA radars. He’s getting it from an employee at a chemical factory just outside the city. Lydia and Brad share an intimate moment and she lets it slip that she doesn’t like her clients, the wealthy parents who didn’t seem to care about their kid until he was dead. The relationship between Brad and Lydia heats up and he tells her to stay out of the investigation because he is concerned for her. Of course Lydia doesn’t take orders from anyone, man or woman. The episode ends with her going undercover as an employee of the chemical factory. Brad is completely unaware of where she is and unable to help if something were to happen.

Franklin nodded as the credits rolled. He had an urge to applaud Lydia for her tenacity but didn’t want to make too much noise and wake his wife. With each rolling of the credits and the brief moment of reality between episodes, Franklin knew this level of tension and release, this level of entertainment, was only achievable through a marathon watching session. Spreading these episodes out over a month seemed criminal in comparison. If you were going to space it out like that, why even bother, Franklin thought, and he shook his head, certain of this profound truth.

The next episode opened with Lydia snooping around the factory. Within a few minutes, Franklin’s stomach felt ill. He readjusted to maximize comfort but then hesitated. A slight nausea swept over him. Sugar, caffeine, carbonation, caramel coloring, liquid, something was upsetting his stomach. He paused Netflix to use the bathroom. He passed through the kitchen in the dark and groped along the wall until he found the light switch, then squinted when the light came and paused a moment to let his eyes adjust. He moved quickly to relieve himself. As he was standing in front of the toilet, he noticed the bathroom was not quite right. All the fixtures were there and in their right places, but things were missing. There was no mat in front of the tub or toilet. There was no hand soap. There was no towel. Even the little vase and fake flower his wife had put out were gone. Franklin was at first concerned, then shrugged it off.

He returned to the couch, pulled a blanket around himself, and settled in staring at the screen. He felt a bit unsure about what do to next. A general uneasiness still pressed upon him like the feeling of waking from a vivid dream. He rubbed his eyes, shook it off, and continued the episode. Franklin groped out around the coffee table for his drink but remembered that he had finished it.

The episode continued, flashing between Lydia as an undercover employee and Brad who is looking for her. He has some key information that has not been revealed. Franklin grew bored. The episode dragged and had no rhythm. It didn’t maintain the tension he craved. The episode ends with Lydia about to open the door to a room where drugs are being stored. The camera fades to black and the credits roll.

Franklin leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. He loved the show. He loved talking about the show. He liked breaking down and analyzing the conflicts, characters, and the plot. He liked mulling over their problems. This episode, however, was undeniably underwhelming. As an avid watcher of television, though, he was unperturbed. Perhaps they had a lesser director handle this episode in the middle of the season. Franklin yawned and itched his stomach. He watched the next episode, which was equally underwhelming. It focused on the city councilman and his growing interest in the investigation. There was less action and more long-winded speeches between the councilman and the police chief.

Franklin grew weary and went to the kitchen and popped open a new diet coke hoping for that same enhancement of the senses he’d experienced earlier. Thunder clapped as he took a sip. Franklin stood in the kitchen, puzzled. He had to remind himself it was the middle of summer. Perhaps it was due to the humidity, he thought. Although he couldn’t remember the last time there had been a storm this time of year. He walked to the kitchen window but couldn’t see outside. The stars and moon were not visible. Earlier it had been a warm sunny day with clear skies. The storm brought a dense cloud cover. There was the faint sound of a drizzle. He put his hand against the glass and it was cold, almost icy. Franklin shivered and retreated to the warmth of the couch.

He sat back down just as the countdown was finishing and the next episode was beginning. He watched the opening sequence followed by a short recap of the previous episode. Before the recap was over, the episode paused and a little spinning wheel appeared. Franklin bowed his head. This was the spinning Wheel of Delay. The wheel that told Franklin the Netflix inner workings were trying to solve some problem. The wheel then stopped. A message appeared on the screen. The connection to the Internet had been lost.

Franklin grunted angrily as he pulled himself out of the couch. He began a troubleshooting ritual. He turned off the television and disconnected the wifi receiver, counted to ten, and then put it back in. He walked over to the cable modem and router and did the same. When everything had happy blinking lights he turned the television back on and tried to restart the episode. The Netflix app loaded straight into the spinning wheel and then the error message. Franklin slammed his hand on the couch. He was going to call and find out what happened.

His cell phone wasn’t on the coffee table where he thought he had left it. He found it on the kitchen counter near a pile of mail. One of the envelopes had been ripped open. It was an unemployment check addressed to him. He held the check, reading his name and the amount. The letters and numbers seemed to scramble in front of his eyes. He had never collected unemployment in his life. It was late, and it must be some misunderstanding. He put the check down and pulled up the cable company’s website on his phone. It showed no outages. He dialed the customer service line and was told they were closed. However, there was an option to leave an emergency voicemail that would be forwarded to some late-night technician. Without delay, Franklin pushed the button to leave a message. Before he finished it, though, he heard a sound coming from the TV. He hung up the phone and went back out to the living room. The channel had changed and it was an infomercial for starting an Internet business.

Franklin took a few deep breaths and bowed his head. He would not let this stop his marathon session. He was determined. He looked at his phone and decided the screen was too small. However, he had an iPad with a cellular connection. He smiled, pleased with himself. He was not going to give up. He imagined himself as a famous explorer crossing Antarctica experiencing hardships and persevering. Franklin took the iPad and fired up the Netflix app. He was back in business. It remembered where he had left off.

Once again Franklin made himself comfortable on the couch, pulled up the blanket and started to watch the show. The quality of the video was markedly degraded compared to the television. Cellular technology was just not the same as a cable into the television. The audio was also poor coming through the tiny speaker. Franklin made a point to find his headphones as soon as the episode was over.

In the show, Lydia goes into the storeroom, finds the drugs, and is nearly out of the building before she is caught by security. Fortunately, they think she is just a trespasser and don’t know about her discovery. The cops arrest her, and Brad finds her in jail. All of this happens quickly, within the first twenty minutes. Then the episode makes a turn for the sappy. It becomes a feel-good Christmas episode. Among the decorations, mistletoe, and general cheeriness, Brad and Lydia admit their strong feelings for each other. Her arrest and subsequent release unlocked Brad’s deeply buried feelings. The episode ends with Brad convincing the DA to drop any charges against Lydia, invoking the holiday spirit.

Franklin was not happy with this episode, and he was growing wearier of the season. He had been drawn to the show for its gritty realism. He liked the hard-charging attitude of the characters. He liked their inner tensions that were never really expressed but always present. This episode had destroyed much of that.

Franklin felt tired and weary. He yawned and blinked slowly. Perhaps it was time to call it a night, he thought.

He stood up to stretch and saw the countdown for the next episode. He watched as the numbers changed. One more episode he thought. Just take it one step at a time. He jumped a few times and punched the air like a shadow boxer. No, he thought, I am not going to quit.

He paused the countdown and went to the kitchen for something to drink. He felt a strong chill that made him shiver. He walked to the thermostat and saw that it was off. He tapped the screen a few times and shrugged. Something was wrong; no heat, no Internet. Franklin didn’t want to think about it. He would be comfortable enough with the blanket.

In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator, which was almost empty. A bottle of ketchup stood alone in the middle of a shelf. On another shelf was a shriveled-up orange next to a Styrofoam take-out box oozing green liquid. In one of the door shelves sat a can of Red Bull. He was sure he had seen more food there earlier. All the cokes were gone. He stood looking at the refrigerator, trying to process what he was seeing, cycling through memories. Hadn’t his wife gone to the supermarket yesterday? Where had all the food gone? He looked at his watch but had difficulty reading the time. The numbers blurred together. He grabbed the Red Bull and drank it quickly before returning to the couch and resuming the countdown.

The next episode starts with Brad getting a tip from a confidential informant, a concerned businessman who saw suspicious activity near his warehouse. He wants to meet in-person to give Brad printouts of a picture he took with his cell phone that supposedly shows a well-known gang hanging out at a building in downtown. He believes drugs are being manufactured there, maybe even this new one he heard about on the news. Halfway through the meeting the informant drops the photos on the ground. When Brad goes to pick them up, the informant spikes his coffee with some powder. Shortly after the meeting, Brad slumps down in his chair. He has been slipped a lethal dose of Twilight. He is rushed to the hospital where Lydia stays by his side. Meanwhile, the city councilman and local business leaders have a press conference about new proposals to increase jobs. In the background is the owner of the factory as the screen goes black and the credits roll.

Even though Franklin felt sick and cold, even though he felt lightheaded from the sugar and lack of sleep, he didn’t stop. The episode was better than the last, and he was getting back into the show. The TV room felt eerie with just the glow of the iPad. He adjusted in his seat, but his thigh rubbed on a piece of the couch frame where the cushion had worn away. He covered it with a nearby pillow and continued watching the show.

The next episode starts strangely with Brad sitting in a movie theater watching a movie about his life. After watching scenes from his childhood, an usher leads him to another room with two couches. On one couch is Lydia, and on another is a man. His face is dark and distorted like it is coming through a bad television set. Lydia is trying to tell him something, but he can’t understand it. Brad feels an urge to run but can’t move his legs. He falls down, sinking into the floor only to awaken inside a cathedral. He is in a line walking toward a priest with a large hat and ornate robes. Another priest is next to him wearing more ordinary clothes. His face looks familiar but Brad can’t place it. As he gets closer he can see that the plain-dressed priest is giving everyone pills — Twilight. Brad tries to move, but he can’t; it’s as if he is on a conveyor belt. Eventually he is up front. His mouth opens involuntarily and he receives the Twilight. With that, everything goes dark. Brad opens his eyes again to see he is in a hospital room with Lydia by his side. He has been in a coma for two days. He and Lydia talk about his dream and what was happening with the case. When he takes a moment to look at the flowers and get-well cards, he sees an old newspaper. On the front cover is the city councilman and behind him is the man he recognizes from his dreams — the priest, now the owner of the factory.

The episode ended, and Franklin paused Netflix. The show was so weird and out of character that Franklin needed a moment to process his surroundings. It was like he was dreaming with Brad. Everything seemed surreal. This is what it must feel like when explorers are deep into foreign lands, unaccustomed to their surroundings, Franklin thought. He tried to stand up to stretch but felt weak and dizzy. He braced himself on the side of the couch and took a rapid succession of breaths that nearly caused him to pass out. Franklin was still confused from the dream episode, so he decided to lie back down and power through the remaining two episodes.

The next episode has Brad and Lydia following the factory owner. Eventually he goes to a storage location. Brad and Lydia come back to the site later to confirm that the pills have been moved there. The episode moved quickly, and Franklin had difficulty paying attention. Without realizing it, he was already halfway through the last episode where Brad and Lydia recruit the district attorney because they no longer trust the police department. This leads to the arrest of the factory owner. The city councilman undergoes an investigation and disavows any knowledge or support related to the owner or the drugs. Whoever poisoned Brad remains unsolved. The season ends with Brad and Lydia opening a private detective agency together.

The credits rolled, and no more countdowns appeared. The expedition into the long stream of entertainment was over. Franklin felt weak from sitting for so long, his legs numb and tingly. He put the iPad down and took the blanket off but shivered from the cold. He picked the blanket back up and wrapped it around him. It seemed thinner and more worn. Now with the morning light coming through the windows, the house looked different. The furniture looked old and dusty. The walls were dingy and yellowing. A bookcase appeared to be missing.

Franklin made his way to the bedroom holding the blanket around him. He peeked into his daughter’s room and saw it was empty. There was no bed, no dresser, no dollhouse. A single pair of pants lay on the floor.

His bedroom was similar except a sheet lay sloppily over the bare mattress on the floor. His wife was gone. There was nothing else.

JON HOWELL lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. His sacred writing space is his car in traffic on the freeway.