Binge watching is nothing new. It’s been around since people were able to tape episodes onto VHS so they could watch their favorite shows as they please. It’s been around since TV networks have aired weekend long marathons of popular television shows. I remember camping out in front of the tv on Saturday afternoons when MTV would show My So-Called Life marathons. But in the 21st century, with the advent of Netflix and DVRs, binge watching seems to be becoming the norm rather than the guilty pleasure. I realize I’m getting into “Get off my lawn” territory, but hear out my case against binge watching.
Let’s start with True Detective. Out of nowhere, HBO’s newest mini-series has floored critics and audiences and has become a ratings success. At the core, there is a mystery surrounding a dead woman and who may have killed her. But the show is so much more than your typical CSI-style police procedural show. It goes deep into the psyche of its two main characters Cohle and Hart (brought to life with award worthy performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson). What makes these guys tick? Their world views and philosophies are at constant odds with each other. The show is just as much a character study as it is a mystery.
Half the fun of watching True Detective is the wait between episodes. Each episode drops some new information. Some that makes us rethink where the show is going, and some that forces us to look back at previous episodes with a new perspective. Fans of the show gather online or in person to share theories and clues they’ve uncovered with each new episode. This reminds me of the glory days of Lost. While it was ultimately disappointing in the end, the journey there was glorious fun. What’s inside the hatch? Who are The Others? How did the Black Rock get there? How the fuck did they get off the island? Who the fuck is Jacob? With each episode, Lost gave us something new to mull over and sometimes pulled the rug out from under our feet with an unexpected twist.
Netflix has made it easier and more convenient in this modern era. The people who watch Lost over the course of two weekends can say they’ve “watched” Lost, but they can’t say they’ve “experienced” Lost. Binge watching a show tends to make episodes blur together and viewers have trouble remembering specific events from specific episodes after plowing through eight per night. Netflix’s original programming pretty much encourages binge watching by dropping all episodes of a season in one day. The conversation has shifted from, “Holy shit. What do you think Frances is going to do next?” to “Where are you at on House of Cards? Oh. Never mind.” Imagine if Netflix released one episode of House of Cards per week, encouraging you to appreciate and reflect on what happened, giving fans time to talk about the events and where they think the show might be going.
Then there’s the issue of waste. “Waste” is perhaps too strong a word and probably not the right one to use, but I’m using it anyway. So, we’ve waited a year for House of Cards to return. And you’re going to waste the entire experience in one weekend instead of stretching it out for a while? We waited YEARS for the return of Arrested Development, and Netflix’s season of Arrested Development may possibly be the last season of that show we’ll ever get, and you’re just going to watch it all in one day? That’s like getting the opportunity to have sex with the partner of your dreams and blowing your load in 5 minutes instead of having tantric-like sex antics that lasts for days. Savor the experience.
Which brings me back to True Detective. When this show is eventually released on DVD and Blu-ray, there will inevitably be a sizable portion of the audience who will watch it in one night and wonder why we were all going crazy over this show. You missed half of the experience.
Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes people want to know if a show is good before investing in it, or they simply haven’t heard of it until recently and want to catch up so they can join the conversation. Breaking Bad is the best example of this. The only people tuned in were fans of Bryan Cranston who wanted to check out his new show and/or fans of The X-Files who wanted to see what writer/producer Vince Gilligan was going to do next. By the end of the season, critics were buzzing. And then the Emmys came in for Cranston’s performance. Season 2 got a bit more traction, and with that, even more awards. By season 3, the show had become a hit, and Netflix put the first three seasons up for streaming. Breaking Bad became water cooler conversation, so people caught up as fast as they could so they could share their theories about Walt’s motivations, or what Gus was going to do next, or when Jesse would find out about the shitty things Walt has done to manipulate him. As a die hard X-Files fan, I was on board with Breaking Bad from the get go, but when the new viewers poured in, I found the conversations about early seasons to be different than those who had watched week to week. The binge watchers remembered main events and plot points but couldn’t remember little details from the earlier seasons. And while discussing the final two seasons on a week to week basis, the former binge watchers were now picking up on the little details that the show leaves as cookie crumbles and Easter eggs.
There’s also the hurdle of those without cable and/or HBO, Showtime, etc. You guys get a free pass, but my suggestion to take it slower when you finally do get those DVDs still stands.
To be honest, I’ve binge watched myself, so this is also aimed at me. For the longest time, I just didn’t *get* Doctor Who. Every time I tried to get into it, I felt like there was a vast mythology to the show that was never explained to me. Around the time the 50th anniversary rolled around, BBCAmerica aired a one-hour documentary that pretty much explained all of the components of the show. “Oh, OK. I get it now. So that’s what a Time Lord is. So that’s the deal with the Daleks. Ok, got it.” I tuned into “The Name of the Doctor”, and while I probably missed out on a ton of details that long time fans of the show picked up, I was still able to enjoy it and understand the story. Afterward, I blew through the series reboot in about a month. Some episodes have faded from my brain, but some stand out as some of the most interesting TV I’ve seen (“Blink”, “Midnight”). I do wish, however, that I was able to experience the series from the start of the reboot, so all of the wrinkles and twists to the plot would have come at a slower pace and I could join in the fan discussions.
I’m not condemning those who binge watch. I’m merely suggesting an alternative: take it slow. Enjoy each bite of that steak. Take a risk on a show that isn’t finished yet. Sometimes that gamble pays off (Breaking Bad), sometimes it doesn’t (Dexter). Part of the fun is the thrill of the communal experience that week-to-week watching brings. That’s what great entertainment in our culture is for: to bring us together.
Thanks to Kiersten at http://youfail.com/ for teaching us how to snort a line of Netflix.