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Go Ahead, Binge-Watch That TV Show

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Summer is the season when you become your own TV programmer. With many favorite shows on break, with more time on your hands, with vacations and downtime, it’s a perfect time to break out that DVD box set or call up Netflix and catch up on the entire run of a show that you’ve missed. (In the Tuned In household, we’re working on season 1 of Friday Night Lights, which I could never talk Mrs. Tuned In into watching when it was on the air.) It’s time to loosen your belt, open wide and gorge on episode after episode at one sitting, like competitive eaters downing hot dogs at the July 4 Nathan’s contest.

Now, Jim Pagels at Slate says you need to slow down and stop gobbling your TV. In an essay on the flaws of binge-watching, Pagels argues that “marathon viewing destroys much of what is best about TV”: “1. Episodes have their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row… 2. Cliffhangers and suspense need time to breathe… 3. Episode recaps and online communities provide key analysis and insight… 4. TV characters should be a regular part of our lives, not someone we hang out with 24/7 for a few days and then never see again… 5. Taking breaks maintains the timeline of the TV universe.”

I don’t agree, but I want to give Pagels fair credit. Like a lot of such polemics, his piece is based on a very good and valuable insight: we have many different ways of watching television these days—live, DVR, with commercials, without, on big screens, on phones, spoiled, unspoiled, spread out over time, crammed into a few days, with DVD commentaries, with online communities and Twitter—and every one of them changes the experience. More than ever, even those of us who watch the same TV show–in an age of smaller and smaller audiences–don’t really see the same thing.

Then, like a lot of such polemics, he builds from that to a provocative, prescriptive decree that will get more attention than the valid insight. So, kudos for that. But it still doesn’t hold up.

The surest sign that a medium is changing is that people start to romanticize the very features of it that used to be condemned. Back when there were only three TV networks with massive audiences, for instance, they were bemoaned for homogenizing the culture and playing to the lowest common denominator; now they’re recalled fondly as a “shared cultural experience” that we no longer have in the digital-cable era.

Likewise, the episodic structure of TV exists because of commercial considerations, not storytelling ones. Episodes end on cliffhangers to bring you back the next week. Subplots are resolved in an hour to give you a sense of completion as you wait for the next installment. “Acts” end on dramatic notes to keep you from channel-flipping through the commercials.

TV, in other words, takes its form from the conditions of its creation—which makes it no different from any other art form, such as the novel. Narratives changed when they went from lyrics, meant to be remembered and recited orally, to devices printed mechanically. Their subjects changed as more people became literate and had access to print. All of that matters–but it doesn’t mean that I’m spoiling The Iliad by reading it rather than having it recited to me by an old Greek man, or that if I’m not going to read Dickens once a week in the newspaper as he meant me to, I may as well not read him at all.

Is TV produced on the assumption that you’ll watch it once a week? Sure–though not as exclusively anymore. (Producers make TV for networks, but they’re well aware of the DVD and on-demand audience, especially if they work for cable networks.) But it’s become a thing you can consume much more like a novel, a portable, sumptuary pleasure. As soon as it comes out. Or years later. Over a rainy weekend. Over months, after you put it down and forget it. On a plane. In a dark room, alone. You can sample it daintily, a teaspoon at a time, or shovel it from the carton, soup spoon in one hand, whipped-cream can in the other.

(In fact there is, in the Slate essay, a note of disapproval, as if bingeing is a vice for the weak-willed: saying it’s “immersive” is “a bit like saying you should ‘immerse’ yourself in Vegas by blowing through all your gambling money by the time your wife and kids have checked into the room.”)

And how many different ways do people read novels? I’ve plowed through some in a day or two. I’ve been reading Wolf Hall, in fits and starts, for two months. Each kind of reading is different: one is like a sustained trance, the other offers the pleasure of being reminded and surprised by the characters after I open to the last dog-eared page.

Can I say one is superior? I can never un-read a book and read it for the first time again the other way. But as a TV critic, I can see the advantage of the deep dive for some shows. I probably liked Luck better than a lot of you, and in retrospect I wonder if it’s because I got the entire season to watch up front: the echoed themes and character notes of its dense, elliptical story played like the recurring strains in a symphony, and I suspect watching the episodes a week apart undercut the effect.

I’m not saying that bingeing is better, either. But creating a set of rules for properly re-creating the original viewing conditions a show feels like a fussy authenticism—like insisting that music needs to be played on LP through vintage speakers, that books must be read on paper, that using a KitchenAid to knead your dough is cheating, or that you should only eat meats and berries because that’s what paleolithic hunter-gathering primed your digestive system for. Maybe. I’ll still take my refined sugar, thanks.

In any case, it’s been interesting going back and watching FNL again, faster this time. Maybe it’s different seeing the characters “grow” at a time-lapse pace, rather than year by year. But narrative time is always artificial anyway. And so far, waiting an hour instead of a week to see if Matt Saracen got the starting QB position makes his story no less achingly compelling—any more than it seemed artificial to watch Stephen Dedalus age decades in the week it took to read Portrait of the Artist (or age 24 hours in the three months it took me to read Ulysses).

Cliffhangers and suspense have their place. But in the end, finding out how Jason Street and Lyla Garrity will deal with his paralysis is no less gripping because I don’t have to experience it in real time (or because I already know what will happen). The emotions are real, even if the time is not.

That’s how a good story works. It’s resilient. It will take whatever viewing (or reading, or listening) conditions you throw at it. And if its effect depends on “maintaining a timeline,” or waiting a year to find out how Jack and Kate go back, or even reading morning-after reviews by idiots like me—it was probably never worth bingeing on to begin with.

24 comments
AngelikaZiolkowska
AngelikaZiolkowska

I watch shows weekly only if I really love them and just can't wait for the next episode. But mostly I watch them a few episodes at a time:) Sometimes a whole season at a time if I really missed out. But I hate when I watch a whole season, and then I have to wait for 6 months or something for the next one. I won't remember almost anything!

Jason Raymer
Jason Raymer

Great piece. I'll summarize Mr. Pagels's stance because it's one that gets floated as an objection in quite a few different settings:"How dare folks utilize a tool in a manner that its creator didn't intend?" or more tendentiously and less absurdo reductio, "That's breaking the social contract! You, as the consumer, are meant to be passive and accept information/culture in the manner it's given you or reject it on the creator's terms. Personalizing your experience should be limited to anecdotal connection in the re-telling and exploration...but, as a good audience member, you may not distort the medium itself. That is not on the list of options."

I'll stick to active interface with art and entertainment myself, thank you very much.

Jess_Witt
Jess_Witt

I don't think there's a universal way for people to view TV now; it all depends on how the viewer wants to do it. Currently, I can't imagine binge-ing through a flurry of Fringe episodes in one day. I'd be totally burned-out on the show immediately. Right now, I'm pacing myself one to two episodes a day much like what Pagels suggested (and I do read a few online reviews as well).

David Clarke
David Clarke

Some shows are great for marathon viewing. Lost, Friday Night Lights, The Wire. But other shows are less good for that. Mad Men may have continuity, but its stories best as self-contained fiction told in order. I watched the entire first season during an AMC marathon, and I enjoyed it, but wasn't absorbing everything the show had to offer until I started waiting a week between episodes. Now, I go back and watch episodes like I go back and read books. I'll grant you that I'm a freak. No arguments.

But do consider the show. On the other end of the spectrum, I watched Burn Notice for a few seasons, and decided to marathon an entire season I missed. Boy oh boy is that a program not meant to be watched in long bursts. Week by week for a couple months? It's fine comfort food that scratches itches I didn't know were there. All at once? It becomes so unbelievably apparent how little the show strays from its formula. I don't mind the formula, but too much is too much.

That's why I pick and choose what I binge-watch.

Andrew Kamadulski
Andrew Kamadulski

I guess if you consider being forced to watch 20 minutes of mindless commercials for every hour of programming and you think being strung along week to week with cliffhangers is enjoyable then maybe he has a point. Personally I refuse to watch commercials and I hate cliffhangers so Ill take mine binge style, thanks.

Actually I have found that most shows I try watching on week to week basis quickle lose my interest and I think they are terrible. Then when I go back several years later and watch multiple seasons binge style I love them. So for me, serial installments full of commercials actually ruin great television programs.

l0bl0
l0bl0

I just got into Mad Men shortly before season 5 came on, and watching it in binge sessions was infinitely more enjoyable than one episode at a time for many reasons. I could turn on subtitles, I could rewind, there was no feeling that "nothing happened" as there tends to be in single episodes.

I've also marathoned shows like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia which is better than watching it one at a time because I don't actually care about the stories, I just want to have it in the background and tune in and out.

Besides, who are all these people who have time to catch weekly episodes of shows that air any time but Sunday nights? I'm in college and don't have DVR. TV on DVD is the greatest thing since sliced bread for me.

Shoot the Critic
Shoot the Critic

I completely agree, and I found Slate's article to be very weak. I get that it can sometimes feel like a waste to binge on certain television programs. I got through Twin Peaks in just a couple of weeks and afterwards wished I had slowed down a bit just so that I could have more to watch - but not because I didn't find the viewing effective. I like how you invoke other art forms and compare their trajectories. I could never imagine a book critic advising against my having read a Dostoyevsky novel in just a couple of weeks instead of dividing it out as it was originally published. I ate up his novels just like I eat up great television I didn't watch its first time around (The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, etc .) - Shoot the Critic

Geekized
Geekized

People should watch shows in the best way that works for them. There is no magic formula. Jim Pagels needs something better to do.

Film Snork
Film Snork

Those interested in a group experience watching (or in some cases re-watching) older television shows should  check out my site.  We are starting communal viewing of  TV shows in August.   First up will probably be The Wire (season 1) and then adding additional shows as time goes on.  Add your insight to the comments if interested.  To better follow the progress LIKE us on Facebook  - just search for FilmSnork

http://www.filmsnork.com/2012/...

BemusedOne
BemusedOne

"but it doesn’t mean that I’m spoiling The Iliad by reading it rather than having it recited to me by an old Greek man ..."

Classic line, James--your vacation served you well!This is very timely for me because since I got a Roku, I've been doing some major binging--I've gotten through the first four seasons of FNL (again), the first three of The Wire (again), The Hour, Luther, and all of Sports Night (which, I'm happy to report, dropped its laugh track partway through season 1). I'm currently re-watching this season of Mad Men, catching things I missed on first viewing as well as things that have more meaning in light of things to come), and Parks and Rec season 1 (which, despite the common assertion that it's not that good, I'm finding very enjoyable, perhaps because I'm already familiar with the characters).At any rate, I love binging and think it's excellent way of getting the most of high quality shows that build on prior episodes. Even in just a week, we forget things that happen and can fail to make connections that make a show more enjoyable. And it's also sparing me from some of the god-awful summer TV currently airing.P.S. I do also read--I swear!

LW37
LW37

I don't know. All the shows I've enjoyed the most are the ones I've binge watched: Sex in the City, Lost, the Good Wife. There's something especially luxurious and fun about having a whole season of a really good show to watch. 

Emma Bradley
Emma Bradley

After the Netflix price hike last year,

I think TVDevo is better now and they don't charge monthly fees for it. 

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

It's funny that Pagels should have chosen Breaking Bad to illustrate his thesis---I spent last summer binge-watching that, I'm sure incorrectly, he'd say. But I was still captivated and moved by it, in all the "right" ways.... (I would just recommend not falling asleep on the couch while watching your third Breaking Bad episode of the night; that's a recipe for some trippy-a**ed dreams, right there.)

When I got to the phrase "you’re still ruining much of what makes the show—and all TV shows—great"  in the second paragraph of Pagels's article, ordinarily I would've rolled my eyes and stopped reading. But then I would have lacked the necessary context for James's response. :) Pagels's piece strikes me as a classic contrarian, controversy- (and page view-) mongering Slate Pitch: "Why Birdwatchers are Ruining America!" "Why People Who Do Crossword Puzzles Are Sick, Sad, and Wrong!" (For people who might want to binge-read anti--binge-watching articles, here's a more thoughtful, less patronizing argument from Todd Van Der Werff: http://www.avclub.com/articles...

But I'm fine with the experience of binge-watching. I mean, busy life and not always having cable means I've missed great shows and big (okay, HUGE) chunks of important television history (FNL, Sopranos, The Wire, for Pete's sake). I'm not sure how else I'm supposed to experience these shows now. (By necessity I've had to become less spoiler-averse, which I'm surprised to find I've been pretty OK with. Still want to watch the shows!)

And I'm with twocee--enduring the waits between seasons and half-seasons of Battlestar Galactica was agonizing, and even though we'd seen every episode as it aired, it was lovely to binge-watch the whole series once all the DVDs were available. I especially enjoyed being able to trace the arcs of characters and themes that hadn't revealed their importance until the end of the show.

****

Okay, James, with your mention of Ulysses above, that's the third hint-from-the-universe this week that this Joyce- (and Faulkner-) deficient English major needs to woman up and finally read Ulysses. (Owing to stupid vagaries of college course scheduling, I wound up being "an English major of the classic type" as my advisor spun it: Chaucer-Shakespeare-Milton.) On Sunday I binge-read Alison Bechdel's fantastic Fun Home, with its many references to Ulysses. Wow, any graphic novel that makes you burst into tears as you finish it (at its achingly lovely, perfect last panel) is one for the ages. (Bechdel's newest is waiting at the library for me to pick it up today. Yay!) And also on Sunday, a Twitter link led me to this article: http://www.nybooks.com/article... (There's a $100-word dictionary stiffness in places in that piece that worries me a little; Chabon's prose there doesn't seem as lively and kinetic as in, say, Kavalier amp; Clay or in his more freewheeling nonfiction pieces. Please step away from the OED, Mr. C!)

BemusedOne
BemusedOne

Re Battlestar Gallatica, did you see the Portlandia sketch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... on binge-watching it? Definitely worth checking out and, in your case, validating!

Shoot the Critic
Shoot the Critic

That's exactly how I watched Battlestar Galactica, and I don't regret a minute of it!

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Congrats on refi! And clearly you should spend the savings on DVD box sets and streaming services! :-)

The Hoobie
The Hoobie

Oh, you know it! Mr. TH and I watched it and loved it. It's exactly like that! :)

Any news about the refi? Hope you didn't have to wait too long for the appraisal report to come in! (The four-day wait for our appraisal was torture....)

BemusedOne
BemusedOne

 Just closed last week! Now what to do with the savings ...

Chris Kw.
Chris Kw.

I like this topic.  Mainly because I have mixed feelings about it.  In between my freshman and sophomore years in college (2007) I started binge-watching all of HBO's old shows when I was home for the summer.  I didn't get a summer job until late July and dropped the summer classes I was going to take at my local community college.  So I had a lot of free time.  I mean, every week or two weeks I was moving onto a new series.  Carnivale, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, started The Wire.  That's not the full list.  I also watched the early seasons of Dexter and Big Love and Veronica Mars.  I can't remember them all.  Then when the writers strike happened in the Fall, I caught up on older network shows like Buffy, Arrested Development and the first couple of seasons of FNL. 

One of the reasons I started watching all those shows was because I started reading this and other TV critics blogs because of Lost.  And this led to me finding out what shows were generally considered to be critically acclaimed.  I was too young to watch a lot of those shows when they originally aired.  The thing that always bummed me out about watching these shows was when I would talk to people who watched them in real time.  They got to experience them with other people, where I mostly watched them by myself.  It was also funny how I would speak about the shows as if they were brand new and they had forgotten a lot about them.

Anyways, when Netflix instant streaming came around I was kind of pissed off.  Because a lot of the shows I had previously binge-watched were now on it.  I kind of thought I could have waited and then watched an episode here and there instead of doing the marathons of seasons.  And I have done that with older sitcoms like Frasier and Cheers and dramas like Twin Peaks and even the first season of Bob's Burgers.  But I know other people who do the binge watching on Netflix.  And I even ended up doing with Felicity!!! I wanted to watch the show that began J.J. Abrams career.   Somehow I ended up watching the first three seasons in a matter of a few weeks before I skipped around the final season. 

Another negative effect I noticed this time was that it's really easy to forget character's names when you watch TV this way.  Only a couple of week's after I watched Felicity, I was watching Cougar Town and realized that the latino actor (actually I can't remember his real name or his Cougar Town's character name either!!)  was on Felicity but I couldn't remember his name. 

Plus, all the episodes might blur together.  This happens because the goal isn't to enjoy the specific episode but rather take a step closer to the season finale.  And on some shows (The Wire) that's not a problem.  But on a show like Buffy, that has memorable episodes like "Hush," it can be a problem.  Although I never forgot about "Hush" because The Gentlemen are pretty memorable because they're one of the few villains that actually kind of scare me.  But reading through some plot synopses of that show on Netflix makes me realize that I didn't fully grasp the individual segments.  Yes, it's natural to forget trivial things such as TV episodes over time, but I don't think it really appreciated the episodes when I first watched them because I was so eager to get to the respective season's conclusion. 

I guess I do agree with you James and the reason why is Game of Thrones.  I read each of those books in about a week.   And when I reread them to help remember things before I bought A Dance with Dragons, I said I would pace myself by reading a couple hundred pages a week for a period of a few months.  But that didn't happen.  Because devouring those books is what comes naturally to me.  I will probably watch the show and the same devouring pace when I watch them on blu ray in future years.  So marathoning serialized TV is what comes naturally to me.  Marathoning sitcoms and procedurals, not so much.  It's a free country.  Indulge in your entertainment in whatever way pleases you!!

twocee
twocee

 One thing I try to do when I binge watch older shows is to see if any of my favorite TV writers did recaps/write-ups back when the shows or seasons were originally on.  I've found that reading those really help focus my attention on some of the episodic touches that, as you say, get lost in the race to the finish.  Plus it's sometimes fun to see what people were predicting would happen or what was important, when it turned out to be the exact opposite.

majnun99
majnun99

Tv shows are built around commercials to, with mini cliff hangers. But I ain't watching those either

jremigio
jremigio

There's so much more quality television these days, but there's also only so many hours in a day (or week). I'd miss out on a lot of good TV if I couldn't binge-watch at my leisure.

That said, there definitely is a difference between the periodic and binge styles of viewing. I binged on The Walking Dead earlier this year and loved it. Then I went back to read some online analysis and commentary. A lot of people felt that the show didn't advance the plot enough in many of the season 2 episodes. I thought those people were off-base, until I realized that I probably didn't notice because I didn't have to wait a week with high expectations, only to be let down.

vrcplou
vrcplou

Wow, so now we have a "right" way to watch tv?  I'm a binge-watcher, although it's usually to catch up on a show I missed out on.  I just finished a marathon of four seasons of Mad Men - mostly because reading the commentary and essays about the show on this site convinced me I was really missing out.  And I was, by the way.  The only downside to binge-watching that I can see is that when you are cheek and jowl with characters for an extended period you really miss them when you get caught up.  I'm desperately awaiting Season Five on DVD.  But when Mad Men returns I will watch weekly.   Mostly because that's conditioned but also because I want to be able to read and participate in discussions of the show as they occur.

 But all of these different ways of watching benefit the viewers.  I've always thought that networks should consider airing their episodic television the way cable does.  Repeat the last season just before the new season airs to give people who missed it the first time around a chance to catch up.  But I guess that doesn't fit their ratings driven business model.  Which is why I find I watch 90% cable shows.

twocee
twocee

In general, if a show has any kind of long-term arc, I prefer to watch it in "binge" sessions.  I kind of wonder if I would've been happier with HIMYM if I'd just waited until the end of the series and watched the whole thing over a summer. 

One show I keep meaning to binge on is Lost.  I have wondered how dramatically different it would be to watch it in large chunks, rather than week to week with the agonizingly long months of hiatus.