Tuned In

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.