Film and TV

Streaming Services Need a Random Episode Button

And now I have a whole new season of Sabrina to watch...
And now I have a whole new season of Sabrina to watch... Screengrab by Jef Rouner
The great thing about the streaming age is that nearly everything is available at our fingertips. The terrible thing about the streaming age is that nearly everything is available at our fingertips. We desperately need a random episode button on streaming services.

Like a lot of adults in their late 30s/early 40s, I signed up for Disney Plus even though I already have three other streaming services. I did it for Marvel movies and Star Wars and programming for my daughter, but I also did it because I wanted to relive The Disney Afternoon and X-Men: The Animated Series.

I sat down and I started watching Gargoyles, pretty much the best animated American television of the late ‘90s. It’s held up surprisingly well, but I quickly noticed that I was not actually recapturing the feeling of my carefree after school days like I hoped. It didn’t feel like entertainment or escapism; it felt like a chore.

We are inundated with so many entertainment choices now that it’s causing analysis paralysis. It’s one of the reasons that the music video is on life-support as an art form even though more of them are being produced now than ever have been before. There’s very little curation. All we have is this enormous cache, like trying to figure out where you want to go for dinner and having some sort of giant electronic God-King passive-aggressively respond, “whatever you want to do is fine with me.”

I find myself wanting to fall into the worlds of television I have loved and experienced, but not necessarily wanting to do it from front to back. In an age where we’re are all scrambling in FOMO to keep up with so much entertainment just to have an opinion on it, every new property feels like an extra chore to do. In short, I just want someone to choose for me. The idea of just being relieved of a minor choice like that sounds as relaxing as a backrub.

It’s not like most shows need to be watched strictly in order, especially if you’ve seen them before. There’s an overarching plot to Gargoyles, but there is also a lot of backtracking and repetition and reminding because it was a show made for kids who might not get to see it every week.

Even something like Game of Thrones doesn’t need to be linear, especially if you’re familiar with it. My wife and I dropped off watching it at some point but wanted to get back into it as the series came to a close. We didn’t want to be lost, but we also didn’t fee the need to see Ned Stark get five inches shorter again. After polling some friends on Facebook, we picked up somewhere in Season 3 and it was lovely. Once we found a thread, we continued on to the end. It was so much more organic and fun than assigning ourselves a giant rewatch project.

I watch a lot of Doctor Who, both by myself and with my family. We love The Doctor, but that is over a hundred episodes just in the revived series alone. Somehow when we pick an episode it always ends up being one of about five staples. It’s not that I mind watching “The Girl in the Fireplace” for the twentieth time, but it does seem like a waste of this magnificent library. Maybe I would enjoy something like “Hide” or “Listen” if I gave them another go, but because I have to actively choose them over other episodes I know I like better I never do.

The same goes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or The Simpsons, or Friends, or The Good Place, or Stranger Things, or even something like Blue Planet. It’s not just “oh that show you like is here,” it’s “now scroll through eight menus and pick something.” It’s not liberating; it’s paralyzing. If there was a shuffle feature, I could easily find myself lost for hours in a show. One of the reasons YouTube is such a success is because it is very good at understanding what you were watching and giving you a random thing that is like that but not exactly it.

We are under constant bombardment from advertising to see the new thing, love the old thing, consume, Consume, CONSUME. They’re things we like and want to experience, but the imperativeness of it is exhausting. It would be wonderful to just have some of that choice taken out of my hands every once in a while, like being invited to a new restaurant by a date or hearing an opening act you have never heard of before a concert. It wouldn’t be a thing you always did, but a random episode button would give television back some of its glorious lost spontaneity from the heyday of syndication.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner