The Case for Speed-watching

How I came to love watching TV shows really fast. (I swear I’m not a monster.)

Illustration: Tyler Comrie
Illustration: Tyler Comrie

When Netflix introduced a playback-control feature allowing viewers to adjust the speed of whatever they’re watching on the platform last year, it opened up some genuinely strange possibilities. Ever thought about watching Peaky Blinders really fast? (It’s fun.) Or Too Hot to Handle at half-speed? (Why would you? Why not?)

To some, the addition was curious. It seemed like yet another instance of Netflix’s increasing technical whimsy, along with its adventures in interactive television and its interest in building out an in-house video-game division. The company’s official explanation for adding the new playback control was that it would make Netflix more accessible. (Whether this was simply shrewd messaging doesn’t make it any less meaningful. I have a geriatric relative, a little slower on the uptake these days, who’s relishing that sweet 0.75x life.) But it also appeared to be another example of the company working to deepen its consumers’ appetites for binge-watching, a phenomenon it helped pioneer. Many of the writers, directors, and actors who work with Netflix initially reacted to the tool with frustration, and I can see how it would come off as a Machiavellian strategy.

But I have very much welcomed the feature into my relatively able-bodied life. Indeed, it has turned me into what could be called a “speed-watcher,” and though I feel self-conscious about having become this sort of person, I’m also in a better place for it.

I suspect this admission may be reprehensible to you. Totally, I get it. That said, I’m not arguing that everybody should be speed-watching for leisure. This certainly isn’t me presenting my preferences as a moral stance on behalf of some extreme consumer-empowerment ideology. I’m empathetic to artists who feel annoyed that their work is being experienced in ways that don’t fit their original intention. Indeed, I feel similar things when a reader tells me they mostly skim my podcast columns because they’re too long. (How dare you?) What I am saying is that speed-watching has helped me navigate a very specific problem. Let me explain.

People often say there are too many podcasts; that’s supposedly a defining problem for the medium. This is a boring person’s interpretation of an interesting opinion. The same protest can be made about any other well of culture: There are too many TV shows, too many films, too many books, too many video games, too many musicians, too many sports, too many blog posts, and so on. Such abundance can be overwhelming, but it’s a wonderful thing. It means lots of people are making stuff, and there’s lots of stuff for all sorts of people, which, in the aggregate, is generally a better situation than not.

When that abundance does become debilitating is when you have the specific compulsion I have, which is a sweaty, hobbling desire to take in as many TV shows, films, books, podcasts, news stories, sub-Reddits, subcultures, live sporting events, and other things as I possibly can — while trying not to neglect the basics, like loved ones, job responsibilities, and hunger. Consider it a kind of bizarro FOMO but for cultural life. I wouldn’t say it’s the healthiest thing to have, nor would I argue it necessarily translates to a particularly strong grasp of those cultural objects. But that’s how my brain is wired, unfortunately.

So I try to get through things as quickly as I can. Consuming media at accelerated speeds is not a new tactic for me. My day job covering podcasts involves listening to a lot of them, and in the podcast world, the concept of speed-listening — or “podfasting,” as the writer Doree Shafrir has called it — is a little more known, so much so that variable-playback-speed features are baked into many podcast apps by default. (That it seems to be less frowned upon is a different matter.)

I’m an aggressive speed-listener: 1.5x for talk podcasts, 1.2x for everything else. I’ve listened to countless hours of accelerated podcasts, to a point where I’m pretty sure my brain just works differently now, though I haven’t yet gotten a CT scan to suss that out. I feel an urge to read very quickly, often gliding past potentially meditative details. (Sorry.) With narrative-driven video games, I often skip all optional paths. (To be fair, many games feel bloated these days.) If I could speed up the final minutes of NBA games, I totally would, but they’re, you know, live. And with Netflix’s new playback-control feature, I now happily speed-watch TV shows, too.

If there has been a fundamental change in my relationship with Netflix — which so far is the only service to offer accelerated playback aside from YouTube TV — it’s that I have become far more likely to try new things these days. Most of what I speed-watch — typically at 1.25x speed — are shows that some would call trash, although I detest the word. (And to the extent that I use that word, I’m pro-trash; I think there’s value in it.) The sci-fi series Manifest was certainly not a good piece of television, but I was interested in the premise — a great candidate for a speed-watch. I have been more willing to dip into an ungodly number of generic Netflix docuseries and, through those excursions, have been able to discover a few I genuinely enjoyed. This may be a heretical thing to say, but I speed-watch a lot of anime. Ditto for certain types of reality television (though, as a big fan of the genre, I keep most of them at 1x to savor the drama).

At 1.25x speed, the dialogue on TV shows doesn’t sound comically hastened. To my ears, the speech just flows more freely, with an artificial layer of added pep. Still, I’m not an absolutist in my accelerative proclivities. I won’t speed-watch movies. It just doesn’t feel right. (For now, anyway.) Also, I revisit things constantly, and when that happens, I usually take my time. You could say, then, that what’s really going on with my speed consuming gambits is I’m mostly skimming the media universe and marking things for future revisits.

I’m not trying to defend myself. I’m aware that I’m gleefully contributing to the further commodification of everything under capitalism. I understand that this isn’t how these artistic and media creations were meant to be experienced and that, in a perfect world, each work would be taken exactly on its own terms and everybody would be adequately supported by their societies so they would have more free time to do things like, I don’t know, watch more television shows and read more books. But this isn’t a perfect world. In fact, it’s a world that largely sucks. I have a deep hole in my being that I feel compelled to fill with all this stuff, and I don’t have an infinite amount of time. So I’m trying to make the best of what I’ve got.

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The Case for Speed-watching TV Shows