"Binge watching," as it's being called, is the process of watching multiple episodes of a television show all at once. IFC's Portlandia did a fabulous episode about the process when the characters watch endless hours of Battlestar Galactica and freak out when there are no more to be seen. As funny as the concept may be, binge watching has come under much scrutiny over the past year or so and specifically this past week when it was announced that Netflix would release its entire original drama House of Cards in one fell swoop. TV critics have freaked out.
Todd VanDerrWerff of the A.V. Club recently posted an excellent article about the perils of watching your favorite show all at once and questioned Netflix's new model. VanDerrWerff reminisces for the good old days when people used to meet around the water cooler and discuss last night's episode of The Sopranos.
The problem with this kind of nostalgia is it is just that, nostalgia. Not only do people not huddle around the water cooler or coffee pot chatting about who killed J.R., but how many offices really have water coolers anymore? Coffee pots are Keurigs, which means your coffee is made exclusively for you. Sharing experiences, specifically media and cultural artifacts, have become completely singular experiences. I know, "singular sharing," sounds like an oxymoron but it is our current media consumption. Because of time shifted viewing, on demand, streaming and the simple fact that there is way too much media out there, we consume television however we damn please. And the people who create it and critique it need to get used to this idea.
Critics have argued that with Netflix's new distribution method the model of television will change and television will in turn transition. I am not sure if this is true, or if it is necessarily such a bad thing. Art changes and evolves and our technology often dictates the trajectory of that movement. The recording industry screamed like little babies when we started sharing individual MP3 songs across the World Wide Web, and they eventually got with the program and started charging us per song. Many who make and write about music cried foul then too. Individual songs will kill the "album!" And they were right. But perhaps much of "the album" was just filler around the good songs? If the non-hits were good, you would figure it out and listen to them.
TV critic Jaime Weinman has made a similar predication about the future given the Netflix model. He states that:
But if it gets to the point that we genuinely treat a TV season like a movie, then the question becomes: how many movies need to be that long? Very few. It's not just that commercial considerations prevent a movie from being 13 hours long; it's that when you start cutting down the footage and preserving only what's essential, cutting out anything that repeats points without expanding on them, you will probably wind up with three or four hours, not 13.
Cutting the fat of a television show may cut content or it may lead to better, tighter scripts that don't need to keep reminding you of why that character is like that or why they drink too much or the awful childhood they had; we just saw and we remember very well.
Television as an art is in the best years of its life. The quality of shows, mostly on cable, have reached gold standards and the reason is that most of these shows are character driven. There are episodes of such shows where nothing at all happens but you are in love with the reaction of the characters. When Weinman argues that television may become just like a long-ish movie, I have to disagree. Very few movies are character driven because there is just not enough time. I want the Breaking Bad episode where Walt does nothing but attemps to kill a fly; that would never work in a movie.
Both authors give reasons for, but mostly against, binge watching. It will change the way we see television, it will make bad television seem better, it will kill the anticipation and the wait for the following episode and it will completely alter the bond we have over our favorite characters and shows. To some extent I agree with all of this, but I am a proud binge watcher. I love binge watching television and I look forward to other distributors following the Netflix example, and let's face it, they already have and it's called On Demand.
Binge watching does change your approach to television. Like any art you are supposed to savor it, but what is wrong with savoring six episodes over the course of a weekend? Perhaps you lose that anticipation but I will argue that you don't lose the nuances of each episode. You do, however, notice the flaws more, but since you are binge watching you overlook certain mishaps for the good of the show.
Here's an example: I watched the first few episodes of FX's biker drama Sons of Anarchy when it was first released. I enjoyed it and I think I watched through episode five. But something happened in the middle of the first season; it started to suck. Within seven days of watching one episode I had lost interest recalling that the last episode hadn't been all that great. I stopped watching the show.
Recently, I had read some good things about the direction the show had gone and since it was available on demand, figured I'd give it another shot. The same episodes I hated the first time around were still disappointing, but I didn't have to wait a week to get through, I could watch the next episode to see if it got any better. There is almost less of an investment when you binge watch, you don't have to wait an entire season to decide whether or not a show is worth your time, just watch a few episodes in a row and you'll quickly know.
It is said that binge watching doesn't let you pull out the subtleties of each episode, but I again have to disagree. I feel that you notice and renotice things with a keener eye when binge watching. There is more opportunity for recall; subtle nuances can be missed when you have forgotten them between viewing. My little sister is currently binge watching Lost and I am actually jealous that I had to watch it on a week-to-week basis. Imagine all of the things you could pick up on had you not been waiting months between seasons. You could find out if the writers had any idea what they were doing from the beginning.
Binge watching makes me feel a closeness to the characters that I don't know if I get from regular viewing. I get to know them faster and they become my good friends quicker. They say "love the one you're with" and I think this applies to binge watching. When you watch multiple weekly shows at a time, there are many directions to spread your love, but with binge watching your focus is much more targeted.
Binge watching also alleviates confusion. I am currently in the middle of a Game of Thrones binge. Have you seen this show? There are 700 characters and they all look pretty similar in their fur throws. Binge watching has helped me keep track of names and relationships. Everyone on that show has a beard; it's confusing.
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As stated by numerous people who are cultural critics, as well as myself, television is at its best. Given this fact, we have entered a time of overload. There is too much "I heard that's a good show" to watch. Unless it is something we get paid to do, where do you find the time? Binge watching helps alleviate this. I have a growing list of shows that I want to check out. If I can cross one of them off my list in a weekend, all the better. I don't think this devalues the artistic merit of the show; I think it gives programming more of an opportunity to be seen. I had a limited time of free Showtime and used it to watch the entire second season of Homeland, and I am certainly glad that I did as I'm sure is Showtime.
When VanDerrWerff says he misses the good old days where we got together and relived the previous night's hit show, I think this is an old mentality. People just don't do that anymore. Social media has made some connections and can be considered the new "water cooler," but even so, it is limited. After viewing this week's episode of Girls, I was desperate to talk to someone about it and so I turned to Twitter. #Girls turned up little save lots of paid tweets by HBO and most of my friends were either DVRing it to watch the Grammys or waiting until it was on demand. That's just the way television viewing is now a days.
What the critics need to realize is that change is inevitable and it must be embraced. I think it was Darwin who said, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." I think that it was him because I looked it up.
Now excuse me while I watch seven hours straight of Downton Abbey.