What Spongebob Can Teach Us about Binge Culture

“Yep, this is great. I might as well rename this town ‘Squidward’s Paradise,’ or perhaps, too much paradise.”

– Squidward Tentacles, Spongebob Squarepants

Have you ever discovered a song that sounded so catchy, you repeated it over and over until it became dull, boring, and perhaps annoying? If so, then you’re not alone.

The first time a catchy song is played on the radio, it sounds deep and rich, and you might convince yourself that it could never become boring. Listen to the same song one hundred more times, however, and I guarantee that it will no longer sound the same as when you first listened to it. Why does this always happen?

You know what they say, you can’t have too much of a good thing. This adage reflects both the physiological and practical limitations of prolonged indulgence in pleasurable activities, such as listening to music, playing video games, viewing Internet pornography, and eating fast food.

Physiologically, at some point the brain becomes less sensitive to previously arousing stimuli, operating under a “pleasure-adaptation” principle. This phenomenon is likely due to neural adaptation in the mesolimbic dopamine system and other key brain areas involved in generating feelings of reward. I’ll use the example of the inability of chronic drug users to re-achieve the same highs as before (“Wow, an article about Spongebob, and he brings up drugs.”). Unfortunately for them, their tolerance levels raise to the point where near-lethal doses are needed for them to induce a slight buzz, and as a result progress to harder substances, get sick from withdrawal, or even die. It’s the course that addiction runs.

More practically, it wouldn’t make sense for us to wipe our memories clean so that we could, for instance, listen to that catchy song forever without it becoming dull or boring. This is not only because it would waste a great deal of time, but because the mind was built for novelty. If anything, evolution wanted us to experience as many new things as possible to maximize the chances of discovery and survival, and by extension, sexual reproduction. Haven’t you ever wondered why over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce? The answer is that over half of once-happy and fulfilling marriages inevitably fail because couples stop being physically attracted to each other, causing them to cheat, argue, and eventually file for divorce. Simply put, the modern institution of marriage is counterproductive to spreading our genes as far as possible, so naturally we become bored after we’ve had sex with the same person for the past 20 years (note: this is not meant to be taken as an attack on marriage, however; I understand that it is a crucial component of adequate child rearing).

The human brain’s constant “scrapping the old” and “embracing the new” also conflicts with modern binge culture. Perhaps the best illustration of the conflict between the adaptation to pleasure and binging is the episode of Spongebob Squarepants where Squidward moves into the town of Tentacle Acres to get away from Spongebob and Patrick (see Season 2, Episode 6).

The basic premise of the episode “Squidville” is that Spongebob and Patrick draw the final straw with Squidward when they accidentally blow up his house. Thus, he moves away to the affluent town of Tentacle Acres that is exclusive to his kind.

At first, Squidward’s new residence seems like a dream come true. He takes up bike riding, shopping for canned bread, interpretive dancing, and playing the clarinet in a trio. However, he engages in these activities so much and so often that eventually he loses complete interest in them, and resorts to harassing the other residents with a reef blower to keep himself occupied.

I love this episode because it teaches kids that when things are taken in excess, they become repetitive and lose meaning. No other episode in a children’s television show can quite depict the consequences of empty binge behavior as accurately as Spongebob did. Furthermore, it poses an important question that we should all ask ourselves: how much “paradise” is considered “too much”? How long does it take before our finest indulgences become stale?

Most of the time, the reason we become bored or disinterested in previously interesting activities is because we chase nonexistent extremes, and thus manufacture ways to be miserable because we’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel good. It’s the same reason why the ecstasy of winning the lottery eventually evaporates, and you revert back to your original level of life satisfaction. Assuming you win $1,000,000, you’ll need to win $2,000,000 next time to feel profoundly ecstatic again. But even then, it won’t necessarily feel the same as that initial jackpot.

It all comes back to this idea of neural adaptation in that when you indulge in any activity that gives you pleasure, you set a new standard by which all other subsequent pleasurable activities are measured up to. In other words, when you find something that brings you joy, that becomes the new norm, and from there you’ll constantly attempt to emulate or even outmatch the joy that you once felt—to “one-up” it, so to speak.

Here are a couple of examples from my life: I am a huge fan of open-world RPGs. I’ve played Destiny (2013), Skyrim (2011), and Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) for hundreds of hours, but nowadays, whenever I revisit these games, they just don’t feel the same as when I first played them. I hate to say it, but they’ve become boring. On the other hand, when I take long-term breaks and play other games (or maybe read a book), they feel fresh again and I can at least derive some enjoyment from them. Obviously not as much enjoyment as when I played them for the first time, but just enough to keep me reasonably entertained. In addition, I enjoy drinking whiskey. I love its taste and aroma, and how it only takes me a few sips to get a nice buzz going. However, I’m aware that if I drank it every single night, day by day, not only would I suffer severe health consequences, but the quality of that “buzzed” feeling would drop exponentially. One drink would become two, two drinks would become four, and four drinks would become eight just so I could re-achieve or outmatch that buzz.

Just like “Squidville,” my takeaway message for you is to always moderate your leisure activities. Because binging, while indeed fun, can only get you so far before you start feeling a little empty inside.

Are We Living in the Golden Age of Television?

Are we in the midst of an era when television is in its prime? Can it soar higher than it is now, or is it as good as it’s ever going to be? These are two questions that circulated through my mind after finishing the critically acclaimed first season of HBO’s Westworld (2016), a television show based on the 1973 movie of the same name. Westworld is about a fictional, western-themed amusement park where attendees (or “guests”) pay large sums of money to fulfill their darkest desires. In essence, the guests are permitted to murder or have sexual intercourse with the park’s “hosts,” human-like androids that occupy the park, while the “programmers” write the scripts for the hosts and control all of their behaviors.

Westworld is renowned for its thought-provoking examination of the relationship that mankind has with its own technology, and of key themes that include fate, free will, life, death, God, reincarnation, and the nature of human consciousness. I could spend hours—literally days—talking about these things, but keeping within the scope of this article, I will save that for another time.

I didn’t think Westworld could live up to the standards I’ve set for other shows that I hold such a high opinion of, but Season 1, Episode 10 (“The Bicameral Mind”) proved me wrong. In this 95 minute finale, the writers managed to deliver an unbelievably satisfying payoff to the preceding 9 hours I spent with the show, addressing almost every single inquiry into the world, characters, and narrative direction. Even better, almost every scene had its own “Shyamalanism,” a term I coined that describes how the revelation of a plot twist incentivizes an audience to re-watch a television show or movie to spot out the Easter eggs they didn’t notice the first time around. I won’t spoil anything here, but let’s just say that much like M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies, there are certain story bits in Westworld that you would easily overlook upon first watch, but would blow your mind upon a second or third watch. That is the mark of brilliant storytelling, because to truly deliver a satisfying payoff to any great piece of media, you have to display things in plain sight and subvert attention from them until they become relevant to the twists that you want to reveal.

I bring up Westworld because it’s one television show out of the dozens of high-grade shows that have come out in the past two decades. Between 1999 and today, we’ve gotten amazing shows such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Dexter, Prison Break, The Walking Dead, Black Mirror, Orange is the New Black, Narcos, Sherlock, Stranger Things, and my personal all-time favorite, Breaking Bad, which I consider to be the Mona Lisa of Television for its complex layered writing and exemplary character development. Let’s not forget the spin-off to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, another show commonly considered to be golden entertainment.

So are we living in a golden age of television? As a matter of fact, we are. Don’t believe me? There is already a Wikipedia article aptly titled “Golden Age of Television (2000s–present).” Apparently, there was a golden age of T.V. in the 1950s as well, but the 2000s golden age is being dubbed the “New,” “Second,” or “Third Golden Age of Television” because of transformations in the way that we consume media. In addition, the critically acclaimed aforementioned shows have (each in their own right) changed the language of episodic filmography, effectively revolutionizing how stories are told on the small screen. After all, television is a language, and every good show has helped us see it as one.

But if film is a language and every language evolves with time, then what has modern television done to evolve the way in which it is being communicated? There is a long list of examples, but here is a condensed version: Breaking Bad was the first show to take a seemingly innocent and virtuous character, and transform him into a cold, calculating, and ruthless one. Dexter was the first show to make its audience root for, and empathize with, a serial killer. The Walking Dead was the first show to combine realistic human dramas with a zombie apocalypse. Game of Thrones was the first show to depict adult themes in a fantasy setting and regularly kill its lead characters. Stranger Things was the first show to successfully emulate ‘80s media. And finally, Orange is the New Black was the first show to make its side characters more interesting than the main character.

It might seem overly reductive to say that these shows were the “first of their kind,” and while that is true to a certain extent, they were unarguably the first of their kind in the modern era of television. That’s why we’re living in the New Golden Age of Television.

However, golden ages by definition don’t last forever, so when will we see television start to drop in overall quality? It’s hard to say, as it could be in another 10, 20, 40, or even 100 years. Nobody knows for certain, but what is certain is that if our beloved T.V. shows can continue raising the bar, they’ll never get boring.