By WARREN ST. JOHN
FOR Angela Jackson, a homemaker in Pittsburg, Calif., and an admitted TV obsessive, this is a sacred time of year. It's sweeps season, and after months of devoted viewing, Ms. Jackson is in a finale frenzy, getting the answers to questions that have nagged her all season and hanging on to every last dramatic plot twist.
She learned last Sunday who won "Survivor: Panama-Exile Island" (Aras Baskauskas), and on Monday that Michael and Lincoln got away on "Prison Break." On Wednesday she learned that Danielle Evans is "America's Next Top Model." And don't even get her started on "American Idol," which will crown a winner on Wednesday.
Asked if she might venture out of the house for, say, food or water with friends this week, Ms. Jackson said, "No way."
"I don't miss TV in May," she said. "All the shows are good, and they have all the special guest appearances. I cook early and I make sure everything is done by the time my show's up."
As American television has moved from episodic sitcoms to serialized shows that end, not unlike baseball or the N.F.L. seasons, in a playoffs-style showdown, the miniseason known as sweeps has become an all-consuming national event. There are season finales (till next time, "24") and series finales (farewell, "Will & Grace"), two-part finales and finale postgame recaps.
Many shows, like "Lost" and "24," have thriving online communities, which fans check the morning after, to see what fellow viewers make of it all. The obsession with "American Idol," which has nearly as many voters as a major presidential candidate, has reached kooky "Truman Show" levels. (Got your back, Taylor. Bring it home bro.)
But there's a dark side to the sweeps orgy, one people don't talk much about: Beyond all those finales and tearful farewells lies a gaping existential void, a deep abiding loneliness that no rerun can alleviate.
"It's really, really sad," Ms. Jackson said. "You know, the shows take up a big part of what I do in the evening." She said she tried to cope by reading, renting movies, watching her daughter's cheerleading practice. But it's not the same.
"I really miss my shows," she said.
Susan Squire, a Manhattan writer who is obsessed with "Grey's Anatomy" and "The OC," said she could already feel a post-sweeps hangover coming on, and a sense of doom weighing down on her.
"I'm feeling major depression," she said. "I wait all week. It's such a great moment — but it's going to go away." She likened her sweeps viewing habits to a cocaine binge, and said last week that she had been asking herself a question most addicts asked at one time or another: "Was it worth it — really worth it?"
For Katie Cray, who works in marketing in Manhattan — that is, when she's not watching "Lost," "House" or "24" — the sweeps are about not medicating. She said she lays off her much-needed allergy medicine so she won't get drowsy during her shows. At the end of sweeps, she said, "It's like I lost a bunch of friends."
TiVo was supposed to change all that. Empowered by the ability to record whole series with ease, and then to skip the commercials and the boring parts, hard-core viewers were promised that technology would free them from the shackles of appointment viewing. Viewers would be in control. What on earth happened?
For one thing, the TiVo foul: the act of discussing the outcome of a previously broadcast show without first checking with those present to find out if they saw it live, or if the show still awaits them, unwatched, on their home DVR's.
Elisabeth Diana, 26, of San Francisco said she would have been content to record her shows and watch them at her leisure, "so long as my friends keep their big mouths shut." Sadly, she said, it didn't always work out that way.
Another problem is that simply logging on to one's e-mail or checking a news site can mean running into a spoiler headline, since sites like Yahoo! News cover television happenings with at least as much zeal as real world happenings: "Mischa Barton's 'OC' Character Killed," blared Yahoo! News on a Friday morning, just hours after the broadcast. Sorry TiVo suckers!
Then there are those souls for whom television serves as a kind of glue for their social lives. Blair Beakley, 25, a buyer for a gift store in Manhattan, said TiVo-ing "Desperate Housewives" would be the equivalent of putting her relationship with her mother on hold.
"My mom and I call each other when we're watching 'Desperate Housewives,' " she said. "We live eight states away, so it enables us to communicate. Our relationship is going to suffer after this season is over."
Cathy Garrard, a journalist who lives in Brooklyn and who described herself as "totally, totally, totally" devoted to "Project Runway," said she and a group of friends have an e-mail powwow the morning after each episode of "Lost," so TiVo-ing is out.
"I would never not watch it live," Ms. Garrard said by way of explaining what happened to most of her Wednesday nights this year. "I look forward to it each week. If you went to a grocery store and bought the ingredients for a great meal, why would you wait to make it?"
Some well-adjusted types say they look forward to being unburdened by the end of the TV season. Jessica Lam, 27, a health care worker in Atlanta who considers herself a moderate fan of "American Idol," said she was happy at the prospect of getting her life back. "It's relieving," she said. "I feel somewhat couch potato-like for having to tune in that much."
Ms. Lam said she was pretty certain that Taylor Hicks, the Alabama rocker, would win this week, and that she would be watching.
So will Sara Coffman of Overland Park, Kan., who said she had recruited her husband Scott and even their 2-year-old into an "American Idol" fixation. "Our 2-year-old is a big music fan," she said. "He dances and plays his 'Sesame Street' guitar. He was a big fan of Carrie Underwood last year — he just stared at her. He likes big hair."
"We actually have a life," Mrs. Coffman added, after a moment's reflection. So what does her family plan to do for life after the sweeps?
"We'll probably go back to golfing," she said.