A few weeks ago I met a young, balding professional around my age who works in sales. We started talking about books, and he assured me fervently that this year he was going to use his time better. His plan was to read more books and watch less Netflix.
His goals were good, but his feelings of guilt were obvious. He put the word “Netflix” in his mouth like a cigarette, as though he were apologizing to me for smoking while digging in his pockets for a lighter. I could relate. For years, I had refused to watch TV or Netflix because I thought it wasn’t worth my time at all, and when occasionally I did indulge, I felt guilty, too.
Netflix guilt: the struggle is real. We enjoy it, and simultaneously feel bad about it, sometimes dirty. Entertainment is one of the great American exports, and few of us know how to balance screen life with daily life.
We don’t know what the role of entertainment should be.
For our parents’ generation, entertainment was primarily passive: they watched The Andy Griffith Show, watched the news, watched movies, listened to the radio. It was like the cafeteria. ABC served; you ate.
Our generation also grew up watching shows, but we have the Googles and the YouTubes. Passively swallowing a network’s selection of entertainment doesn’t sit well with us. We’re used to watching what we like, when we like. We make memes and GIFs based on the shows we watch. We write reviews and criticism and comments.
We’re also used to seeing the filtered lives of the adventurous, traveling the world, road tripping across the country and into our feeds. It makes us very aware that there are people and places and causes beyond our screen, and that binge-watching isn’t the same as walking the Camino.
So as much as we love Netflix, we know that a Saturday’s worth of Making a Murderer episodes probably isn’t the healthiest use of time, even if we review it on Facebook. We want to live well, and for our moments to have meaning.
Some of us quit, cold-turkey. We cancel Netflix and Facebook accounts. We delete apps. And sometimes that’s necessary. But sometimes it isn’t. As this Verge writer points out, moral choices aren’t very different without the internet. Even Maria Popova, the brain behind BrainPickings.org and probably one of the most well-read women in the world, prefers digital reading to reading books because of the cataloguing benefits of certain technologies. But this is because she understands that her reading has a particular purpose: she reads because she is a writer.
The fact is, there’s nothing wrong with Netflix. Netflix is a good. G. K. Chesterton defended the penny novel; we should defend streaming.
But too much of a good thing can make us morally or intellectually obese, so we should assign Netflix a clear role in our lives. In other words, rather than feeling guilty for enjoying it, we should enjoy it and know when and why.
(Cue scene from The Life Aquatic where Ned Plimpton challenges Steve Zissou: “Now lead!”)
I think that is the secret to integrating Netflix into the good life. It’s not feeling bad about it; it is defining its purpose and giving it a role.
I have a few suggestions:
Know what you want. Don’t go in with a “just browsing” mentality. Know the movie or genre you’re looking for. Read some reviews about what’s playing and what would be worth watching. Ask friends for recommendations.
Journal. I find this especially powerful after watching an emotionally riveting or draining show. You have thoughts and feelings about The Walking Dead; write them down. Keep a journal. Keeping a journal both for the books you read and the shows you stream helps you unpack and interpret what you saw, and it helps you get more out of the experience.
Host. Two is a conversation, three is a discussion, but any group size is good. Make Netflix a communal event. Set a time and set the coffee table. Brian Brown offers some great tips in his article on the cocktail hour—you might add a twist of Mad Men.
Blog. Be a critic, if only for yourself. Grapple with themes and characters and worlds, and ask questions about their functions and meanings. Read up on a genre and learn about it, what informs and influences it. It will give the shows you watch context in a greater reality, and in the world.
Use Netflix for creative inspiration. If you’re an artist of any kind, a good show is always a good exercise because it further develops your ability to see: character motivations and backgrounds, story structures, color and scene compositions, camera work, acting and directing styles, music selections. A show or film is always pointing something out to you; pay attention to what that is.
When we do these things, we’re no longer passive viewers, but agents. We become and remain the stewards of our time, our souls, and our sanity. And Netflix serves, rather than rules, our flourishing.
Any other ideas on how we can give Netflix a meaningful role? I would love to hear your thoughts!
Joseph is a featured Humane Pursuits columnist. He works as a marketer in West Chester, PA, and writes music, articles, and the occasional short story.