On Rewatching TV Shows


It’s been a calm week for Now I Know, with me taking Tuesday and Wednesday off for Passover. As a result, I don’t have a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff to share. So let’s go with something completely different and random: rewatching TV shows.

I don’t actually watch a lot of TV, or, at least, not a lot of new-to-me TV. When I first started Now I Know back in 2010, people asked me where I found the time, and I often said “I don’t watch a lot of TV.” That wasn’t a random thought, either. A few years earlier, a writer and commentator on the emerging Internet named Clay Shirkey gave a speech (pdf here) about “social surplus” or as he’d later recast it “cognitive surplus.” The basic idea is that we have jobs, we have families and friends, and we sleep — and in all those cases, our brains are busy. And that takes up a lot of our time; maybe you only have an hour a day where your brain has time to do something unrelated to those three prongs. But that adds up — ultimately, we, individually, have many, many hours of time per year to do things we normally don’t. Add the Internet to the equation and you can, to a degree, multiply that by the number of people connected. That gives society at huge benefit that was previously something we couldn’t tap into.

How huge? Shirkey would later note in his book, “Cognitive Surplus,” that you get a Wikipedia out of this — and easily. Shirky estimated that American adults spend 300 billion hours, collectively, watching TV in a year, and that (as of a few years ago), it took Wikipedia editors only 100 million hours to write all of the content in Wikipedia. Here’s a visualization of that (via here):

And, of course, non-Americans and non-adults can edit Wikipedia, too. So the drop in the bucket below is even smaller when you look at the actual bucket it comes from.

I took this to heart back in 2010 — I figured I could create something pretty neat if I just watched a little less TV. (I watch a lot of baseball games, though; that was never going away.) But the thing is, I like stories and storytelling, and a lot of our greatest storytelling is told via TV shows. So, yes, I’ve watched a lot of TV over the last decade plus. (And no, I don’t feel at all guilty about it.)

But I tend to do my TV watching when I’m doing something else — writing this, making dinner, etc. — rarely do I sit on the couch and just watch TV. I’m sure I’m not unique in that regard, although I do think I do this more often than most. Even baseball games are on in the background despite my obsession with the game. And a few days ago, I started re-watching The Magicians, a fantastic TV show that I’ve already watched at least four times previously.

It only occurred to me while writing this that, maybe, this is how I balance TV watching in a way that allows me to capture some cognitive surplus. I haven’t said “I don’t watch a lot of TV” in a decade in large part because it’s no longer true. But I definitely don’t focus on TV. (I haven’t watched the last season of Succession yet because I’d need to give it my undivided attention, and that seems like a chore.) And as a result, I tend to rewatch a lot of shows — and still seem to enjoy it.

The Now I Know Week In Review

Monday: When Show Business Met Monkey Business: I called the chimp an “ape” here and a few of you wrote in to tell me that chimps aren’t apes. I knew that but ran out of synonyms — but probably should have noted that at some point in the story.

Tuesday: The Invisible Wall Around Most of Manhattan: A thin, barely perceptible wire runs from lamppost to lamppost. Here’s why.

Wednesday: The Hidden Reference to the Beatles in Old Macs: I really wanted to make a yellow submarine joke here but I couldn’t make that work.

Thursday: The Prison Manual That Was Key To An Escape: Amazingly, this isn’t the worst prison security faux pas I’ve written about.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend:

  1. The Cloud Under the Sea” (The Verge, 43 minutes, April 2024). If you’re reading this outside of the Americas, chances are it’s hitting your device via an undersea cable. These cables connect our continents to one singular Intranet, but they also break a lot. This is the story of the people who make sure they keep on working.
  2. The endless quest to replace alcohol” (Vox, 13 minutes, April 2024). I’m mostly a non-drinker (I definitely had a little — but only a little — Manischewitz during the Passover seders. So I don’t really think about alcohol a lot, so this story gave me an a-ha moment that many of you may take for granted. The author tweeted a summary, here, which I’m sharing (with a slight edit), to give you a taste of the story: “I wrote about the quest to replace alcohol and the dream of a substance that makes you feel free and happy and sexy but won’t get you addicted or shave years off your life or make you feel [awful] the next day. Spoiler: I don’t think we’ll ever find it.”
  3. Savages! Innocents! Sages! What Do We Really Know About Early Humans?” (New York Times, 7 minutes, April 2024). This is a book review, so it’s not quite addressing the question itself in as much depth as it could (the good news is that there’s a book you can buy if you’re interested in more — which should be obvious given that, again, this is a book review.) But the short answer to the question is summarized in the article’s subhead: “In ‘The Invention of Prehistory,’ the historian Stefanos Geroulanos argues that many of our theories about our remote ancestors tell us more about us than them.”

Have a great weekend!