It seems that in quarantine, the act of binging has become a no-brainer. Indulging in any activity to the point of excess is the way in which many of us cope with boredom (binge that TV show you love or haven’t had time to watch in the past), anxiety (binge on chocolate or vodka to make the pain more palatable) or the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic (binge on natural supplements and home remedies in hopes that the virus will pass you by).
And yet, binging is also accompanied by an insidious side effect: numbness. If we spend days in a row watching the same television show we might stop caring about the plot twists, the characters’ emotional journeys, or find ourselves scrolling on our phones because eventually, we need an escape from the escape. Too much chocolate can lead to indigestion, and there are few things as painful as a hangover brought on by drinking alone.
It’s no surprise to realize that even binging must be done responsibly. Enter the ironically titled Binge, a one-on-one performance created by Brian Lobel (I loved, and wrote about, his You Have to Forgive Me, You Have to Forgive Me, You Have to Forgive Me here) commissioned and produced by La Jolla Playhouse, in which Lobel and friends (nine other multidisciplinary artists) become your TV doctors, creating a tailor-made performance for one, which ends with a soulful prescription: the right television episode for you right now.
Before your Zoom session, you must answer a thorough questionnaire meant to pair you with the performer you need. Filling out the survey, like anything else in the show, requires a commitment to mindfulness and a profound examination of self. Don’t approach this Binge, if you’re not ready to look at yourself with the same level of attention you give your favorite TV characters.
Leslie Knope-types, the optimistic lead of Parks & Recreation, will be ready to answer questions about how they’re treating themselves, or how workplace inequality has affected their mind, body, and heart, but might need a little bit more time (and research if they’re very Knope) to answer questions inspired by The Flavor of Love franchise. I aced the Sex and the City portion of the survey but spent more time than I’d like to admit pondering the answers to questions inspired by Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager.
Although you don’t have to answer every single question, and you certainly are allowed to skip the survey altogether, I found the pre-show portion to be essential to my enjoyment of the experience. Thinking how my life relates to Gilmore Girls, which I love, and The Real Housewives franchise, which I have sworn never to watch, made for an interesting exercise in which I meditated on the ways in which pop culture, even in the iterations we haven’t experienced or that are more foreign to us, have seeped into every aspect of our lives.
I can’t tell a Star Trek: Voyage apart from a Star Trek: Deep Space 9, but I know about Dr. Spock’s over intellectualization of emotions, and how it relates to my inner Miranda (that’s Cynthia Nixon’s character from Sex and the City for the uninitiated).
Although you’re not told how your performer is assigned to you (I crossed my fingers I wouldn’t get a reality show recommendation) based on the care with which Lobel approaches his work, I knew I could trust him and his friends to provide me with precisely what I needed. And boy, did they do just that.
On a muggy Brooklyn afternoon, I connected via Zoom with the Berlin-based artist Season Butler, whose warmth instantly made me feel like I was talking to a lifelong friend. Like Blanche DuBois I find that the kindness of strangers is sometimes more dependable than the weary ears of those closest to us, who perhaps expect us to grow faster than we do, but don’t always have the heart to tell us so.
Within minutes I was telling Butler about my childhood, sharing stories about my father and grandmother, and showing them my apartment. What surprised me was to see Butler distill the essence of what I shared into a couple of phrases, written in a small blackboard, that took my breath away. How a stranger so far removed from my life and history had come up with what I announced would become a new mantra is the power of Binge.
Live performances usually hold a mirror to show us who we are as a society, but rarely do they look directly into our souls at such a personal level. Rather than hiding my discomfort as when I feel a character in a stage show has “read me,” Butler’s kind wisdom disarmed me.
This is why I find Binge’s title to be ironic. Binging requires a certain level of disassociation from self and from others, to become so immersed in something that we forget ourselves. At this Binge, I was affirmed.
When Butler reached the portion of the performance when I was to be prescribed TV episodes to soothe me, I took their recommendations of The Simpsons, as the bonus to what had already been a spiritual experience. That my episodes were so fitting to my favorite character in the show (I’m a total Lisa) wasn’t as surprising as the fact that Butler also mentioned keywords that had come into play in a conversation I’d recently had with my Homer Simpson.
Rather than dwelling on the coincidence and mystery of it all, after saying our goodbyes, I sat on my couch grateful for the spiritual connection I had made with someone I wouldn’t have been able to share with were it not for where I am in the world today. In Binge I also found the unthinkable: a Zoom call I wanted to last forever.
To have one’s soul touched by a stranger through a screen is after all the reason why time after time we revisit our favorite TV shows when we’re aching. To overcome the numbness and revel in our humanity. This is truly why we binge.
Binge runs through July 12.