It takes no less than 5 days to watch the entire run of South Park. This much we gather from the SP marathon—viewable on southparkmarathon.com—which began streaming last Saturday in advance of the show’s upcoming new season. All 234 episodes of South Park’s previous 16 seasons will air consecutively and back-to-back. Similarly, AMC will dedicate a long block of airtime to a Breaking Bad marathon, leading to the final episodes of the series.
The first few days of the marathon have given viewers the opportunity to watch 15-year-old episodes that feel buried by time. It has been fascinating to witness the first stages in several evolutionary processes, from voice and image quality, to the increasingly absurd speech patterns of Eric Cartman—changes that would have been imperceptible if the show was viewed over the course of years.
Old episodes bring back memories of bygone times: silly fads (Chinpokomon, an anti-American version of Pokemon), aberrant celebrity behavior (Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Jew), the courtroom theatrics of the O.J. trial (the “Chewbacca defense” used by Johnnie Cochran against Chef), and not a small amount of admittedly inventive toilet humor. Looking back, it’s easy to realize why my parents weren’t thrilled about my watching South Park—though a weeklong marathon to my 11-year-old self might’ve been reason to not leave the house.
That the creators have decided to have the marathon aired online underscores the fact that much of the viewership probably doesn’t own a proper television. It is a marathon for a generation that watches most of its television on a MacBook. This new breed of marathon is more than that. It is an super-marathon, a larger-than-life viewing experience, a primetime beast—and it very well may indicate a new trend. It is, at the very least, a novel way to watch and consume television.
There used to be a significant social component to watching television—families gathered in the living room, eyes fixed at the same time on images dancing across a screen. And TV-show marathons, often airing over holiday weekends, engaged viewers—fans would make plans around them, invite friends, order pizza, or even burn through the night watching episode after episode.
Today, a marathon’s defining characteristic is the 20-second countdown on Netflix before the next episode begins playing. It is a lazy activity—one that smacks of stagnancy and immobility. Indeed, we have all done it, but a marathon has become a distraction from life’s duties. It can be lonely. Would the Super Bowl be as massive an event if it could be watched on demand? The widespread availability of content—whenever and wherever its wanted—has killed TV as appointment event, has made it less special.
The super-marathon may bring viewers together once again, in whatever superficial manner TV is able to. When Netflix made available an entire new season of Arrested Development last May, fans of the show gathered together and had viewing parties—a noisy and happy return to TV as a communal experience. Perhaps these kind of mass viewings will make TV less another distraction in our information-rich lives—and more of an event that can bring people together.