Stephen McGinty: I admit I’m glued to the box

'Netflix is the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet ' of which I've been known''to be quite partial'. Picture: AP
'Netflix is the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet ' of which I've been known''to be quite partial'. Picture: AP
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WE WERE lying on the sofa with our feet up when the miracle occurred. In our house footstools are mandatory soft furnishings. A chair or sofa without a cushioned receptacle on which to rest one’s feet is only half complete.

The army has an adage which goes: “why stand when you can sit, why sit when you can lie down, why lie down when you can sleep”. The point being that conserving one’s energy in case of an attack is essential. In our house, our adage goes: “why sit down, when you can also put your feet up and slump to 180 degrees.”

So, we were both lying on the sofa with our feet up on what in less enlightened times was called the pouf, watching House of Cards on Netflix when, at the end of the first episode, as the credits rolled a small box appeared in the corner of the screen which explained that episode two would begin playing automatically in 15 seconds… 14 seconds… 13 seconds.

To the reader unaware of the addictive nature of boxed sets, those cellophane-wrapped rectangles of delight on to whose round shiny discs are pressed the greatest television the world has ever known, such as The Wire and Trumpton - Chigley - Camberwick Green: The Complete Collection, this development may seem unimpressive. But for anyone who has lost an entire weekend, welded to the sofa in the strange narcotic bubble of HBO drama, it is something to both desire and fear. Desire, because who among us hasn’t grown weary of having to lift the remote, point it at the TV and press play for each new episode, sure you might have picked “play all” but even then, at the end of four episodes you still have to physically get up, walk over, bend down, change the disc, walk back and resume the position. What a hassle.

Now, thanks to Netflix’s deep understanding of the sedentary nature of the boxed-set addict, you don’t actually have to do anything, it just assumes you wish to do nothing more with your evening than mainline 15 hours of prime US drama.

Netflix doesn’t care if you crawl to bed at 4am with a mind buzzing with the nefarious activities of Kevin Spacey as a corrupt southern congressmen hell-bent on political revenge. In fact, it positively encourages it. For the American company revolutionised television last week when it released all 15 episodes of its $60 million drama in one fell swoop.

It illustrated how far our viewing habits have changed in the past 30 years. Prior to the invention of the video recorder, if you wanted to watch a programme you had to watch it at whatever time the channel scheduler decided was suitable and rearrange your life accordingly. Betamax and then VHS allowed you to catch up at your convenience and purchase titles to build up your own library of movies.

Television was late at exploiting the market, primarily because while even the longest film fitted neatly on to one video-cassette, a television series required multiple tapes. However, it was the success of Friends in the early-1990s that sowed the seeds of televisual obsession. The show was so popular that each season was released in large foot-long boxes of videos and sold in their millions. DVD – digital video discs – which were first released in 1995 but became hugely popular a few years later, had far greater storage facilities, and so allowed an entire season of 24 episodes to be fitted into four discs and a package the same size or smaller than a standard VHS video. Like a hand slipping into a velvet glove, the content available at the time had found its perfect delivery system.

The West Wing and the fast snappy dialogue of Aaron Sorkin attracted millions of fans who were anxious to either watch the episodes again or, in Britain, were frustrated as the show pinballed around the channels and various time-slots. So it made sense to buy each new box set as it was released.

Yet for many it was the high-quality, adult dramas from the American channel HBO that introduced them to the boxed set. Free from the censorship of the mainstream channels, HBO produced gripping, serious dramas, such as The Sopranos, Carnivale and Six Feet Under, and comedies, such as Sex And The City. They were soon followed by channels such as Showtime (Californication) and AMC (Walking Dead and Mad Men).

Instead of watching shows on television, where they were drip-fed one episode a week, the public developed an appetite for gorging on entire seasons spread over a few sittings. For the middle classes, spending the weekend watching the new season of Mad Men had the same cultural value as attending Wagner’s Ring cycle. For many couples, the boxed set has become the antidote to the tedium of enforced companionship, a way to eat up empty hours before bed – and it comes with its own rules and etiquette.

For instance, to preserve domestic harmony it is an accepted rule that both partners have to commit to the same drama. For example, despite repeated attempts to persuade my wife of the dramatic merits of Game of Thrones, including long explanations about its similarity to the Wars of the Roses, she insisted on dismissing it as Dungeons & Dragons.

“Is there a dwarf?

“Yes but…”

“Is there a princess?”

“Yes but…

“Is there a fire-breathing dragon in it?”

“Yes, but…”

“I’m not watching it.”

Perhaps I didn’t help my case by also explaining that the series had invented a new dramatic technique, known as sexposition, in which complicated but crucial nuggets of narrative are delivered by naked women while in the throes of ecstasy.

My wife just won’t do fantasy, with even True Blood getting ditched in the middle of season two. However, grim reality frequently gets two thumbs up. Breaking Bad, cleverly described by its creator as “Mr Chips meets Scarface”, in which a chemistry teacher on discovering that he has terminal cancer does whatever any self-respecting husband would do to ensure his family’s financial security: he begins to manufacture and sell methamphetamine, continues to be a big hit at home. While an even more hardcore favourite was Oz, HBO’s debut prison drama which can best be described as six seasons of shankings with sharpened spoons, tattooed neo-nazis and male rape. My wife loved it.

The other key point of etiquette is that if you commit to a series as a couple you can’t cheat. Woe betide the irresponsible partner who decides he or she will just watch the next episode alone. Tempting though it is – like Pringles, great TV dramas are difficult to consume one at a time – it leads only to recriminations.

The major problem is when one, by which I mean my good self, wants to watch a series in which one’s partner has little interest and – sorry, Kevin – House of Cards has fallen into this category. Since episode three, I’ve been reduced to watching it on the laptop in bed using earphones.

For anyone wishing to watch House of Cards (which I heartily recommend), I expect they will do what I have done. Sign up for the free month’s trial with the aim to watch the whole series and anything else you spot on the shelves, then scoot out before that first payment of £5.99 gets slammed on to your debit card.

I like to think of it as a TV equivalent of a supermarket challenge, before your allotted time runs out just how much can you load into the trolley while whizzing round the aisles? We’re now 17 episodes into season one of Modern Family. Hilarious, but at one point this week my wife did turn round and say: “I think we’re watching too much TV”. For a second I was reminded of the scene in The Simpsons in which Homer weeps and kisses the TV cable and laments his inability to stop watching when there is just so much good stuff on. Netflix is the equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, of which I’ve been known to be quite partial. However, as I’ve also been known to return from such establishments in a state of engorged discomfort. I argued that this is the modern equivalent of winter hibernation, and come March we shall join a tennis club.

Will we cop out? You may say so, I could not possibly comment.