Sticking Points in Serial Television

I have a serious problem.  Like many readers of this blog, I love serial television.  I love bingeing; I love finding new serial narratives; I love revisiting old ones. But every so often, I reach a sticking point and, for various reasons, both rational and irrational, I just cannot. get. past. it.  This post thus thinks about why sticking points occur…and what can (or should?) do about them.

Recently, I’ve experienced two extremely befuddling sticking points.

The first has incited no small amount of heated “BUT YOU JUST GOTTA KEEP GOING!” responses.  Nearly two years ago, I binged on the first season on Breaking Bad and continued through the first few episodes of Season Two.  It was late May, done with finals, uncharacteristically rainy (for two days straight!) and I had all the time in the world to finish off the season.  While S01 had caused no small amount of anxiety and dread, the first few episodes of S02 — and a particular situation in a Mexican house — produced so much anxiety that I felt as if I was about to have a cardiac incident. No seriously.

I fully realize that Breaking Bad is, arguably, the best show on television.  I get it! I really loved the first season! I totally want to keep going! But YOU GUYS, I can’t.  The idea of starting again makes me feel authentically nauseous.

The second sticking point deals with Friday Night Lights, which is, without a doubt, in my top five pantheon of shows from the last decade.  Especially S03.  And S04….AT LEAST UNTIL I GOT MIRED MID-SEASON.   And here’s the ridiculous thing: the episode on which I’m stuck is, arguably, one of the best single episodes not only of the series as a whole but in serial drama from the past ten years.

 I’m talking about the episode entitled “The Son,” and if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  I watched this episode and bawled like a small child.  For an extended period of time.  Even writing about it now I get teary eyed.  Hell, even thinking about the fact that Zach Gilroy wasn’t nominated for an Emmy for that episode makes me teary eyed.  And now I just can’t press play again, even watching silly silly Pillars of the Earth with the rest of S04 patiently waiting in my queue.  Again, I totally realize that this is DEMENTED.  Vince and East Dillon and Coach are waiting for me! Tami Taylor and the abortion episode, THEY’RE WAITING!  TIM RIGGINS, I MISS YOU SO MUCH!

I’ve had other sticking points (the last episode of Rubicon, everything past S01 in Six Feet Under, past S03E03 of Veronica Mars), but these two seem the most egregious and irrational…..and fascinating.

In the case of Friday Night Lights, the sticking point is obviously psychological. The last time I watched FNL, I felt like a hurricane had decimated my feeling parts.  I felt like nothing that Matt Saracen ever did ever again would compare to what he did in this episode, and I felt like I wasn’t ready to see him again, lest I feel that way again.  In truth, I’m in an odd state of grief — it’s not like the show betrayed me or died, but I feel as if I’m just not ready to go back and feel that way again.  In other words, the show in general and the episode in particular were so good — and illicted such profound and complex emotions in me — that I can’t return to it, or at least not yet.  It’s as if my skin is overly sensitive, and any touch (or exposure to the show) might set me off.

For Breaking Bad, the reaction is visceral in a way I’ve never experienced — at least not from narrative/serial television.  Sure, someone eating bugs on Fear Factor creates a visceral reaction, as does horror film, and maybe something like The Killing, which produces an uncanny feeling of dread.  But the reticence to restart the show has everything to do with not wanting my body to feel the way it felt when I was watching before.  My attempt to avoid that feeling, coupled with my affection for the show, is akin to my love for gin and hate for the hangover.  I want it and I hate it; I know I’ll like it but I also know I’ll despise it.

In truth, both Friday Night Lights and Breaking Bad are slight variations of what Linda Williams calls “body genres” — genres that make your body do something, usually involuntary.  She includes horror (you scream or jump), melodrama (you cry), and porn (you become aroused), but you might also argue for comedy (laughter, even when you don’t want to).  Viewers generally have complex relations with these body genres: the body-focused responses they elicit are pleasurably and painful, treading a knife-edge between fear and relief, sadness and catharsis, desire and release.  You simultaneously want and don’t want to watch, and in making the decision to engage, you’re also agreeing to a sort of masochism….but one that also proves rewarding.

Which is all to say that I’m currently at the very sticky point, at least when it comes to these two shows, when I’m not ready to submit to the pain necessary in order to continue, despite the fact that I know that the eventual derived pleasure will be tremendous.

So I’m wondering: how do I trick myself into getting past these points?  Or is it impossible to convince myself….and I just need to wait until the memory of the displeasure (emotionally, physically) diffuses?  What induces your own sticking point, and are they also related to the “body genres”?

3 Responses to “Sticking Points in Serial Television”

  1. holly says:

    You’ve captured my experience with Breaking Bad perfectly – the binging, the full-on hypertension, the sheer dread but complete inability to look away. I am caught up and ready to watch S04 in real time, and I think the great thing about that is that it’ll allow my poor, weary heart a week’s rest in between episodes.

  2. It’s interesting you picked these two titles to focus on because I have had similar reactions to both. I immediately recognized that Breaking Bad was strong, but I slogged through the first season. After a two year hiatus, I returned again, found watching it difficult, made it a few episodes into season two, which (as everyone agrees) was better than the first, only to die out again. It’s hard to get excited to watch the show, even in recognizing its many strengths.

    My reaction to FNL is much more specific. I have a big hang-up about sports films, particularly those dealing with issues of race. I hated the FNL movie, largely because it fits a narrative of racial tension dissolved by teamwork that I find trite and implausible and counterproductive, and partly because I get really rankled at depictions of authority figures (like referees) acting racistly. That occurs often enough in FNL the show that I had a very hard time watching it the first time through. I’m now much more comfortable leaving the room when my wife is watching so I can watch what I love (anything with the Taylors) and avoid the racist referee episodes that I find both very problematic and deeply disturbing.

    Returning to Breaking Bad, I can’t put my finger on what specifically makes watching it so difficult for me. I think it is at least partly that I don’t like any of these characters, and a few I deeply loathe to the extent that I can barely look at the screen in their scenes. And I know part of it is that some dramas affect me so deeply that I have trouble mounting the energy to watch them (the phenomenon I think you describe).

    As my wife recently said about The Passion of the Christ, even if you agreed with everything in that film, how could you ever be standing at the video store deciding on what to watch and end up with two hours of a person being brutally tortured?

  3. Esme says:

    Annie–

    I’m stuck at the exact same point in FNL. Actually, I don’t think I made it quite as far as you–quit mid episode. That show often makes me have strong emotional reactions, but I just felt like I couldn’t stand to see Matt Seracen in any more pain. This was about a year ago, and I’m trying to psych myself up to finish, since the last season just came out on DVD. But I still don’t think I’m there yet.