Addicted to Netflix: Teen-Soap-Opera Binge As Psychosis

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Photo: Werner Film Productions/Courtesy of Teen Nick

"I swore to myself I wasn't going to talk to you about Dance Academy," I tell my psychologist. Luckily or prophetically, my Master of Fine Arts graduate program provided free therapy to talk about how pursuing a career in the arts is a huge mistake.

“What’s Dance Academy?” she asks.

Dance Academy is an Australian teen drama about “making it” at Sydney’s top ballet school. Netflix recommended it based on my interests in quirky independent high-school dance dramedies featuring a strong female lead. Seasons one and two are available on Netflix Instant, and season three will air in Australia mid-2013 on ABC3.

One week prior, I sat in my one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment and clicked “play,” my only motivation being distraction — to watch something frivolous and chill out, to think tiny nothing thoughts and mentally exit my body, to tune in and tune out.

In the next seven days, I would watch 52 episodes of Dance Academy.

I was an undiagnosed addict with a modern addiction, one that might fall under an umbrella epidemic of loneliness in the digital age.

For me, massive television consumption coincided with moving to New York in 2010 and subscribing to Netflix. I could stream media instantly on my laptop for unlimited hours. When I first moved — from San Francisco, where I had three roommates, one boyfriend, and innumerable outdoor adventure opportunities — I’d look in people’s windows and notice each had a continuous blue glow. What was the deal? Soon I’d be attached to the same invisible tether, using TV as a substitute for living.

Streaming the first few episodes of Dance Academy after dinner one night, I listened to freckled protagonist and narrator Tara Webster, age 15, talk about dancing the way I thought of grad school: each required sacrifice, hard work, disappointment, pain, passion, exaltation, obsession. This was like life, like my life, like a superior version of my life.

I watched as Tara meets Ethan Karamakov, who moves in slow motion whenever she looks at him. I knew, from life, that anyone you see in slow motion goes on a pedestal so lofty that you’ve immunized yourself from reciprocal affection — his position forms the distance between you two, and you're the one who put him there, and then defined him by his distance. Tara says Ethan smells like Christmas. The first boy I saw in slow-mo smelled like Matzo ball soup. I knew, from life, Tara would love Ethan forever, meanwhile he — the popular, older boy narcissist — would love her love but not her. Her obsession would be an aphrodisiac and a repellent. He would never date her, so far asunder is he in their respective cool.

“So you see Dance Academy as a reflection of your past relationships?” my gratis therapist asks. We both laugh.

On Thursday, I played some more episodes before bed.

On Friday, knee-deep in a binge, I began episode eleven, “One Perfect Day,” while eating breakfast. Tara performs a sexy contemporary dance, and I zeroed in on Ethan’s eyes — from my kitchen table I could see him see her differently — and when he extends his hand and when she takes it and when he twirls her on the floor and then lifts her up, draping her arm around his shoulders, and when they're this close and when they kiss — my God!, what a kiss — I’m telling you, you’ve never seen someone so happy as this girl, me, as if I were Tara, as if it were my first kiss. As if eating breakfast had taken on an emotional weight unforeseen in the history of human experience.

I decided I didn’t need to work that day anyway.

Auto-play seamlessly transitioned to episode twelve, to Tara saying to her friend, "I think I have a boyfriend," and my first reaction was, "You dumb idiot, of course you don't," because I knew, from life, a kiss does not mean a relationship.

Wrong! In the next episode, she introduces Ethan to her parents as her “boyfriend," and he doesn't flinch. For the next three episodes — while I ate lunch — they are a couple, and he's perfect and she's perfect and they are perfect and at peace, and for the first time in a long time, I felt perfect and at peace, like I had love in my world. Watching television reminded me that living could be more exciting, more interesting than watching television. I had a lightness and a thrill in me as I waltzed around my apartment, washing my dishes. Of course I had to remind myself these feelings came from the Australian teen dance dramedy Dance Academy. My happiness was absolute and tangible and transformative, but it wasn’t real.

I spent enough time absorbing this show that the way I understood myself shifted. The bendy, dewy ballet dancers’ desire was my desire; their triumphs, my triumphs; their work ethic, so clearly not my work ethic.

In episode sixteen, Tara cheats on Ethan with her pas de deux partner Christian. Immediately I canceled my dinner plans with a friend. What was life? I made some pasta and checked Dance Academy message boards and online forums. What did everyone else think of this bullshit? “Everyone else” consisted of prepubescent girls who used so many acronyms, abbreviations, and emoticons it seemed I was reading hieroglyphics. But I needed confirmation and community: Ethan was adoring and affectionate, and he knew Tara, really knew her, you know? He had done nothing wrong, right? The messages boards offered no solace, no answers; we were all just a bunch of confused young girls.

I viewed each new episode now with a manic hope Tara would beg forgiveness and they’d get back together. This hope has never left me.

On Saturday, around 4 a.m., I finished season one. In one day, I went from beatitude to heartbreak in twenty episodes, favoring the drama of fiction over the dullness of everyday existence. On Saturday afternoon, I extricated myself from my TV-induced emotional prison to meet a friend for lunch. She was going through a real-life breakup.

“Janine, I swore to myself I wasn’t going to talk to you about Dance Academy.” Then I told her what Tara did to Ethan.

“Relationships change so fast. So fast.” I sighed profoundly. “Everything you think you have can be lost in five episodes. Everything.” I was crying like a dumb idiot in full café view.

I knew I could not endure season two. I didn’t think things would be the same for Tara and Christian. Like Burt Bacharach and Hal David classic “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” — and like what I faced after my first relationship Tara falling in love again seemed outside the bounds of rational thought. Everything would be a shadow of the first time, an episode already seen. Lacking promise and hope, full instead of muscle memory of love’s letdowns. (Insert another profound sigh here.) I couldn’t watch Tara go through this I couldn’t go through it so I read each episode synopsis of season two on IMDb, sure if I knew what happened without having to pseudo-experience it, my Dance Academy obsession would be quelled by absence, faded by degrees, etc.

No dice. Knowing more only stroked my need to know even more. I closed IMDb, got into bed late Saturday night, reopened Netflix, fell sharply off the wagon, and clicked “play” on episode one of season two. Systematically spoiling every episode quelled zilch.  

The phenomenon of Netflix had trained my viewership, ensuring I keep watching: the unlimited access, the 52 episodes available for on-demand viewing, auto-play — features exploiting my dependence on fantasy and on the technology that enables my fantasy 24/7. Also: I couldn't risk being bored, sitting alone in echoing silence. Netflix knows it invites obsession and dependence; why else introduce all thirteen episodes of House of Cards at once? Netflix knows us.

On Tuesday, I finished the second season. I went to yoga that evening and moved the way the characters in Dance Academy moved, manipulating my body so powerfully I thought I must be sending signals not just to Tara and Ethan but to all of the ballet world. In the shower after class, I ruminated on the finale — specifically the final dance solos at the Prix de Fonteyn international dance competition — and stood dead-faced under the water, my chest a tight fist of emotion, until I cried out, actually cried out, because maybe doing so would relieve some internal pressure. I got out of the shower to put on a shirt just so I could rend it. A television show is missing for you, and the whole world is gone. 

Growing up, I was an indoor kid and only child. I’ve fallen in love with five men and only two knew about it. I’ve been emotionally invested in TV shows before: In seventh grade, I locked myself in the bathroom after watching the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode wherein Angel loses his soul. My mom knocked on the door and asked if I’d broken up with my boyfriend. What boyfriend? Two years ago a friend recommended Battlestar Galactica, which I can’t even discuss without undergoing near-genital pleasure. Last summer Netflix recommended Friday Night Lights based on my preference for “emotional football dramas.” (You watch Rudy once, and suddenly you have a “preference.” With Internet-streaming media, we're overwhelmed by choice and robbed of choice at the same time.) In the fourth season finale, it’s time for the game-winning 45-yard field goal, and the announcer says, “Six seconds left … I hope you’re on your knees, because we are going to need a miracle.” I pushed back my desk chair, got down on my knees, reached my arms heavenward, and prayed to God.

At therapy, post-one-week Netflix spiral, I can’t not talk about Dance Academy, my recent raison d'être.

It doesn’t escape my attention that I started Netflixing to divert my mind from the very troubles for which I was in therapy. But I knew it offered way more than distraction.

"Have you noticed my outfit?” I ask, with a hint of an Australian accent and my hair in a ballerina bun. Black dance pants and a flowy baby pink tank top with a built-in bra — I am wearing what is essentially a dance leotard, a combo I bought for nearly $180 on Monday at Lululemon Athletica (this store sees my type coming a mile away). In the Dance Academy pilot, Abigail Armstrong wears a pink leotard as “her thing.” I wanted her thing to be my thing. 

The grad school psychologist laughs so hard at me she’s wiping tears away, and then I start laughing, and next we’re both laugh-crying and having a difficult time breathing.

“Have you thought about taking ballet classes?” she asks, recovered.

No. Dance Academy made me feel without requiring me to act. Watching temporarily relieved any external responsibility while deluding me that I had a lot going on. I achieved true Weltschmerz — the melancholic understanding that actual physical reality will never compare to the idealized demands of the mind.

“Not everyone is born a dancer,” I say. That’s a line from Dance Academy.