Last summer, I advanced the not-so-modest thesis that people should ‘quit Netflix.’
Since then, not only has America not experienced a great movement to up and turn off the platform, but we have added Disney+ to our list of platforms on which we can binge. And now we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, which means many of us are under stay-at-home orders. Which raises the all-important-question: Does a pandemic justify an exception to the absolute prohibition on watching Netflix at home?
I know, I know you’ve all been waiting for me to take this up. One of my worries about Netflix (and other, related platforms) is that they were a tacit placeholder for weakened family bonds and thin relationships with our immediate neighbors. No one would ever admit that of their practice, of course. Yet it is striking how much time college students, for instance, give to such platforms. The absence of siblings around and parents who would tell them to go to bed makes the temptation to binge strong.
That was the idea, anyway. I am not persuaded that it was wrong: but our grand social distancing experiment seems to have, if anything, helped us all realize just how impoverished our lives are without the demanding, time-consuming burdens that relationships with real human beings impose on us. Framing Netflix as a substitute for such burdens was probably too strong. Instead, the ease of Netflix and the immediate emotional payoffs of being drawn into its designed-to-be-addictive dramas works against our ability to discover the joys that come at the end of more plodding, boring, and even difficult relationships with one another. Binge-watching establishes a cycle, in which the excitement of tv dramas reinforces (tacitly, but truly) our perception that ordinary life lacks its own charms.
At the same time, turning to Netflix is so tempting because we expend so much energy in our work. Here, as well, it establishes a feedback loop for the home environment: by filling the home with noise and images which are being consumed, it threatens to undermine the conditions required in order to create.
It is telling that in the midst of the pandemic, people have adopted ambitious reading goals or have sought to take up new hobbies, or perfect their existing ones. Netflix and Disney+ continue to churn out new series for us, in their effort to fill the void which now stares back at us in the mirror. Yet the thought of spending this season binging on The Mandalorian—a show, maybe, about little Yoda?—seems somewhat comical, if not sad. Perhaps it is the combination of Lent and a pandemic, but the air has a real urgency about it. People suddenly what to attend to what really matters, and as they say in my neighborhood, Netflix ain’t it.
Some years ago I was introduced to a diagnosis of our modern world which has never left me. It was attributed to Chesterton, though while it sounds much like him, I have never been able to confirm the source. Still, let’s go with it. “The coming peril,” he wrote, “is the intellectual, educational, psychological and artistic over-production, which, equally with economic overproduction, threatens the well-being of contemporary civilization. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralyzed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.”
My aim has long been to make my home not merely a haven from such a frenzied intellectual and cultural atmosphere, but an incubator for a creativity that bespeaks a deep well of life. Others do not have my proclivities or vices, but I could never succeed so long as Netflix or television were an ongoing presence in my house. Banishing them created a new set of expectations and demands—but those habits and practices have helped make my relative social isolation bearable.
So, no, I am not issuing dispensations for Netflix during this time…with, perhaps, a single exception: Friday Night Lights
. Yes, the television show set in Texas that seems like its about football, but which is actually
about marriage and family. (Bonus: I’m also convinced they used Waco as the model for the town. It’s…accurate.) This season has caused married couples and families to spend more sustained time together than they perhaps have since their honeymoon. (I will write about folks who are single, I think, next week.) While that can be a joy, it can also put considerable strain on a relationship. To make the difficulty worse, many of the normal outlets of receiving help are gone: we can’t commiserate with friends the same way over FaceTime, and belt-tightening means less money for marriage counseling.
For years, I had talked FNL up as the best marriage counseling I’d ever paid for. And then I ran a marriage conference and invited St. Louis’ top Christian marriage therapist to speak. He showed up with clips from FNL, because he uses them in counseling sessions with couples. (It is the only television series I have ever watched through in its entirety twice—the second time after I had deliberately quit Netflix.) As I wrote once about the show, “somewhere between seasons one and five Coach and Tami Taylor became something more than another married couple on television. Their relationship and their parenting were never perfect, but unlike so many of television’s marriages, they gave us hope that ‘for better and for worse’ could actually be true. Not easy, mind you, but real.”
So if your marriage is feeling strained in this season, perhaps—perhaps—consider watching through FNL. Having a foil like Coach and Tammy Taylor to laugh and cry with is not only consolation. The independent narrative of their marriage can function as a foil for one’s own, and in that way become a springboard to reflect on your own marital habits and dynamics in a non-accusatory way. We need all the grace we can get to get through this crisis, including the ordinary graces that sometimes appear in places where we would otherwise never expect them—like Netflix.