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Binge watching as a way to remember

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It’s never too late to catch up on American culture

Remember pay phones?

From 1998 to 2003, I didn’t watch television or listen to pop music. I was too cool. (Newsflash to self: I wasn’t cool; I was young). At the time I was bunkered down in Detroit, submerged in edgy, underground house and techno. Then at night, while everyone was watching TV, I was either napping or preparing to make it another late night at the club. The late nineties were my early twenties. I wasn’t hostile towards all forms of tech — I frequented a Detroit techno listserv, for example, and signed up for Friendster to talk for free with my international DJ and promoter friends at a time when cellular rates were still ridiculously high. I simply had no use for mainstream entertainment.

What this means is that I completely missed the start of the era when television got really, really good. Over a decade, two kids, and a much less active nightlife later, I no longer get mad at a good hook on a catchy pop song. I’m even able to squeeze in some TV after the kids are in bed, due to the convenience of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and a deep curiosity about all those old cable shows.

I’m by no means new to this trend, nor alone. There are entire guides on how to backtrack and binge. (At least one of my Verge colleagues binges in lieu of actually sleeping.) For me binging on the glory days of premium cable isn’t merely about catching up, but actually rediscovering a part of an era I lived through, the cultural touch points that I had missed out on, and the technology cues that resonate as familiar.

My binging started before streaming when I Netflix-DVDed The Wire after the birth of my first child in 2008 — a series that first aired in 2002 and ended the year I tuned in. I was captivated by the 60 hours of twisting and turning television that focused on the socioeconomic implications of the corner. Binge watching was a revelation. It was the closest I had come to the plot device of a novel, but in the form of passive television consumption that moved well beyond what could be packed into a two-hour feature film. I saw The Wire in everything. It lingered in the way great books do, long after the last episode ended — I finally understood what all the fuss had been about.

Of course, I was late to the party. But by being late, I could look back to see how the times were changing. Payphones quickly gave way to prepaid mobile phones that would forever be known as “burners” after The Wire introduced the term to middle America.

The burner phones serve as props for incredible characters played by Andre Royo, Wood Harris, and Michael Lee. An episode called “Back Burners” drives home the significance of these devices during the early aughts. By the time I watched, my husband was the one person I knew who still used a pre-paid flip phone — but that’s another story for another time.

A big lapse went by until I finally committed to The Sopranos in the summer of 2014. The 86 episodes of the Sopranos aired from January 1999 to 2007. By the time I tuned in, James Gandolfini had died, and so when I reached the final climatic scene, I cried. Not for the death of his character, but for the loss of an exceptional actor.

The telephones featured in the The Sopranos make the show feel dated — big, hulking communicators that make surprisingly effective weapons. In an early episode Tony Soprano beats a bartender at the Bada Bing club with a landline phone. In another, Gandolfini destroys a typical (for its day) wall-mounted kitchen phone with long spiraling cord to express his rage. In yet another episode, Carmela Soprano throws a giant cordless phone at Tony in the driveway. There are also plenty of cell phones used throughout the series though not as effectively for assaults.

My newly developed interest in dark drama continued during leave for the birth of my daughter last year, as Breaking Bad engulfed me. The show aired from 2008 to 2013. From the moment an alarm rings in the first episode, not on an iPhone, introduced a year earlier, but an old-fashioned alarm clock, Bryan Cranston’s brilliant metamorphosis of Walt into a full-fledged sociopath was hard to resist. Jesse, Walt’s young accomplice, has an actual answering machine that clicks on after the first ring and blares throughout the house. In a much later episode, Walt calls his wife Skyler on a cell phone, as the police tap into her cordless landline. Throughout most of the series, the characters have cell phones pressed to ears. Walt receives a text message from his son in a later episode — a mode of communication that has all but replaced phone calls for an entire generation.

Most recently I ventured back in time to 2001 to binge on the HBO show Six Feet Under. A show about death is already rife with bittersweet remembrance. But the fact that the art student Claire uses an actual darkroom to develop film makes me downright sentimental. The cordless landline is again, state of the art technology for the kitchen. But the technology of the era is most memorably captured in a scene of a distracted family in a car from 2004 — a DVD is playing Powerpuff Girls, the GPS is on, and a boy is playing Mortal Kombat. (Wireless headphones and turn-by-turn guidance were not yet a thing.) In the epic final sequence of the series, a clock radio awakens Claire before she leaves on her journey in the car of the future: a Toyota Prius. Other than her analogue camera and framed portraits hanging on the wall, what’s most surprising is that the showrunner’s vision of the far-off future doesn’t feel compromised by early 21st century assumptions. Turns out that the stuff that really matters doesn’t require modern technology to depict.

What all of these shows share is a form of communication that is slowly becoming obsolete: the phone as a central tool for dialogue that connects characters located in different physical spaces. The telephone in all its transformations, gave us a way to listen in, and served as a prop for actors to build stakes in scenes. It was in perfect lock-step to the times. Somehow the idea of on-screen texts don’t carry quite the same emotional weight of Tony Soprano shrieking down the phone line at a patsy.

I wonder when 2017 will feel dated? When will we giggle at the sight of characters tapping on their smartphones or wearing VR headsets? Technology is evolving so quickly that it won’t take long, I’m sure. Smartphones with bezels are already starting to look dated.

Watching these old shows now, is a reminder of how quickly my own life has changed. Something that’s often reflected better in a TV than a mirror.