I’ve been thinking about the impulse some people have to watch the same things over and over again.
In general, I’m against it… or perhaps I’d better say that I think we’d all be better off if we resisted the urge. I’d like to try to articulate why I believe this. But I have to be honest about my own limitations, first, so… allow me to make a confession.
After watching the original run of M*A*S*H back in the day, and having seen countless episodes many times in syndication, I bought the entire series on DVD… and have since watched my way through the entire thing twice. I’ve seen the last episode, which never fails to break my heart, at least eight times. I’ve done the same thing (for a vastly different reason) with Soap. I own (and have watched) every episode of the original Star Trek series, as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation. If there were enough hours in the day, I’d buy and re-watch at least a half-dozen other television series, too: All in the Family, Taxi, Cheers, Northern Exposure, Six Feet Under, St. Elsewhere. (I could keep going.) I own A&E’s complete series of Hercule Poirot mysteries (despite my reservations about Agatha Christie’s anti-Semitism), and I’m currently watching my way through the series for the third time (to share them with my wife, who has never seen them). And like many theater practitioners, I suspect, I’ve watched Slings & Arrows twice, too. I could make a similar confession about the films I’ve watched multiple times, too. The list would include both youthful obsessions (Ghostbusters) and adult fascinations (Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre), but I’ll spare you the ugliness.
Now that that’s out of the way, I have to ask: am I a better human being for those repeated viewings? What have they done to me? Why have I indulged in them?
Part of the impulse comes from a desire not to lose the characters I love so dearly. In watching M*A*S*H the very first time, for example, Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce became… real to me. (There’s no other word for it.) As many studies have shown, my brain began to think of him in the same way it thinks about any flesh-and-blood person. My memories of him are stored in the same place as my memories of, say, my childhood neighbor Irv, who passed away some years ago. While I don’t have any film of the times I spent with Irv, however, I do have film of Hawkeye, and by watching that film again I can at least renew those memories.
The truth is, though: Hawkeye is gone. There are no new episodes (which explains, I think, why the last episode is so difficult for me to watch). It’s human to hang on… but unwise to hang on too dearly. I should let go. (This also explains, incidentally, why the last episode of Six Feet Under is, in my estimation if not also many others, the most powerful last episode of a series ever made.)
There’s also a way in which watching the same stories over and over again is almost like a panacea: particularly when we watch what we might call “classic Hollywood happy ending” stories. How soothing to see everything work out just fine at the end of, say, Home Alone, when we know quite well that the same situation would be disastrous in real life. A film like that speaks to our need to belong, to be part of a family… but that need, sadly, often goes unmet; in the face of chronic loneliness, watching Home Alone over and over again might seem like relief… but not as much relief, I would argue, as using the same time to go out and meet someone to belong to, or to give a sense of belonging to someone else.
My final (and most important) argument against watching the same stories over and over again is this: every time you watch something again, you lose a chance to watch a new story instead. Our brains are refreshed and reinvigorated every time they encounter a new story; new stories help us see the world in different ways, think new thoughts, find meaning in new ways. If we watch the same stories endlessly, our brains begin to calcify. If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; if all you watch is The Simpsons, I worry, every family looks co-dependent. That’s just not a good thing.
Finally, let me close by saying that I can see one argument for watching stories again: because life, after a good while, will teach you more about the stories you love. I’ve noticed things in my third viewing of The Godfather, for example, that I never noticed before, and the story seems quite different to me as a husband and father than it did as a single man. But years passed between those viewings, and I think that’s appropriate. I waited until the second viewing would really mean something.
Okay: let the arguments commence!