My long, emotional year without Netflix

Jan. 29, 2018, was the day I broke up with Netflix, ending a 16-year relationship that began with DVDs stuffed into red envelopes. But I lost more than movies. I left a cherished link to my stepdad behind in my Netflix queue.

It wasn’t that Netflix wasn’t good enough. It’s that it was too good.

I clearly had a problem. Trawling the dark waters of Netflix’s video catalog, I found myself watching the 20th episode of Find It, Fix It, Flog It while daydreaming about powder-coating an antique gasoline pump. I could blame my love of British accents, but really it was my lack of streaming self control.

I agonized over the cancellation, my heart pulsing for the vigilante action of The Punisher and the mind-bending realms of Stranger Things. I longed to get my afternoon tea on with The Crown. But as much as I love those shows, I feared a lapse and a re-subscription more.

The reminders were all around me, like finding an ex’s socks in the back of a dresser drawer. “Have you checked out Into the Badlands yet? It’s on Netflix,” my sister texted me. “Dang,” I wrote back. “I don’t have a Netflix subscription anymore.” This sort of exchange happens often.

Bandersnatch? Haven’t seen it. Bird Box? Missed it. I’m behind on Netflix, but I’m finally putting a dent in the pile of books I’ve been meaning to read. I’ve started working on one of my novels again. I estimate I’ve gained back about 12 hours a week. That’s more than 48 hours a month.

That’s 26 days per year.

My will, strengthened

People with excessive television habits used to be called couch potatoes, but my TV watching was made worse by the convenience of having Netflix on an iPad I could take anywhere, from the grill out back to the bathroom counter. Netflix even has a name for people like me: “binge racers.”

Remember when the only way to get Netflix was through red envelopes?


Netflix

I haven’t gone cold turkey from streaming video. I still have an Amazon Prime subscription and I keep up on The Man in the High Castle and The Grand Tour. But I’m no longer rushing through shows like I’m on the clock for Final Jeopardy.

I picked up Hulu’s 99-cents-per-month holiday deal, watched all of The Handmaid’s Tale over the course of a month and then pretty much left it alone. I attribute this to my year-long effort to harden myself against video binges. That fake Saturday Night Live ad about millions of Netflix shows was real for me. I was living the endless scroll. But leaving Netflix made me stronger.

I went on a weekend trip to Phoenix last year. My Airbnb had a Netflix option on the smart TV. I clicked on it, feeling disappointed in myself, like I was willfully breaking a New Year’s resolution. It asked for a login. I was saved. I went out for a walk instead.

I think back to the simpler days of Netflix, when the only option was DVD delivery. It was an event when a new movie arrived in the mail. I love the convenience and selection of streaming (a little too much), but I’m nostalgic for those days of actually paying attention to a movie while sitting on the couch in the living room, instead of multitasking by checking my email, making dinner or scrubbing the bathroom counter while my iPad drones away in the background.

Missing more than the shows

It turns out what I miss most about Netflix is talking about shows with friends and family, especially my late pop, the stepdad I looked up to since I was young. A university librarian and academic to the core, he had a great love for Netflix.

Pop never streamed Netflix, but he curated his DVD lineup like he was organizing novels for the Library of Congress. He explored international films by country, then did a deep dive into an individual director’s catalog, working his way through Park Chan-wook, John Woo and Luc Besson. He complained about bumping into Netflix’s 500-movie limit on his queue.

popandwilliamcropped

My pop shoulders his favorite cat while taking a break from watching movies. I sure miss him. 


Amanda Kooser/Techhnews

My pop lived in California, and I lived in New Mexico, so we spooled through long conversations on the phone about his movie recommendations and his search for obscure foreign films.

He died in 2015, and I wish I knew what his Netflix queue contained when he passed. I’d like to watch those movies and remember his love of film, from Fellini to Tarantino and the occasional trashy action flick.

When I used to scroll through the movies on Netflix, I thought about Pop and the films he would have loved if only he had lived long enough to see them. But that’s a silent conversation I no longer have with myself since I shut down Netflix.

At first, I mourned this broken thread. Then I realized Pop would be even more proud of me for getting back into my book collection, for dancing through the flood in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust, for wrapping myself in the murky golden light of James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux. Before we ever talked about Wim Wenders and David Lynch, there were the books we shared and gifted to each other.

Netflix isn’t making this easy on me. Stranger Things is coming back in July. I freakin’ love Marie Kondo. I Konmaried my house long before her show made its debut. And, most of all, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance lurks on the horizon, calling to my childhood dreams of petting Fizzgig and clinging to the back of a Landstrider.

I may not stay away from Netflix forever, but if we hook back up there are gonna be some stringent ground rules. I can forgive myself the time spent with quality programs that challenge my senses and mind. It’s when I veer off into the wandering hours of less thought-provoking entertainment like Ultimate Beastmaster that I get down on myself. And yet I couldn’t seem to look away. That’s my fault, of course, not Netflix’s.

Netflix didn’t respond to a request for advice on balancing my streaming compulsions with the rest of my life.    

People who do what I did and spurn Netflix seem to to be the exception. Netflix has been adding new members in floods, especially as it grows internationally. In 2018 alone, it gained more than 28 million new subscribers — that’s more than the combined membership of Hulu after more than a decade.  

Still, Netflix cold turkey is still the right call for me right now. A year into this experiment, I miss Netflix less. I’ve got Good Omens on my nightstand, a burgeoning novel on my laptop and enough quiet moments to think about how a string of red envelopes once tied two family members together across 800 miles of distance.

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