And A Defense of Moderation
Now that the world seems to be stuck at home with nothing to do but watch endless amounts of television, it would seem like a strange time to argue against the idea of binge-watching, since it seems to be all were doing to fill our time. Nevertheless, as someone who has never understood the reasoning, I think it might be as good as time as any to try and play out the argument why we as a viewing society seem to have decided the only way to watch a series is all at once.
I realize that given the fragmenting of viewership with the rise of cable TV and especially streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, the idea of appointment television has all but disappeared. It’s therefore stunning to find out that the idea of everybody watching one episode a week has become almost unheard of in just the past decade. TV used to be a unifying thing, and I realize that’s gone with the wind. But the idea of patience when it came to television viewing has become not only unheard of, but practically ridiculous.
I just have never understood the logic to binge-watching. The whole premise seemed faulty. House of Cards or Orange is the New Black drops its season on Friday. You spend Saturday — or if you want to pause to eat and sleep, an entire weekend — watching the season. You now have to wait 363 days for the next season. Have our attention spans become so short that the idea of instant gratification now applies to even our viewing happens? Why wait a couple of months for a storyline to play out when you can see the whole thing in a few hours?
In a way, I blame much of Shonda Rhimes work as a counterapproach to the binge watching of Netflix. The pace of series like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder was so ridiculously quick that the average viewer never had time to breathe. And because it worked, I feel a lot of other series on network TV and cable took that same approach. Storylines that would normally take weeks to unfold would change course in an hour. Even the best series on TV — Mr. Robot may be the most obvious example — would have so many twists in some of their episodes, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could’ve taken it seriously after awhile.
As a result, a lot of the greatest writers who worked on television have refused to go along with this. Matthew Weiner, who’s Mad Men, may have been the last great series to rely on a measured pace — said bluntly that he wouldn’t develop TV for streaming services unless they agreed to show it one week at a time. I find it hard to believe that some of the other great writers of the Golden Age — David Simon, Joss Whedon, and Vince Gilligan among them — would ever be willing to adjust their writing for the binge-watching world.
More to the point, I have never understood the appeal. Does no one miss the anticipation of a new episode of television, of having to wait an entire week to find out how Jack Bauer was going to get out of his predicament or how much deeper into the abyss Philip and Elizabeth Jennings were going to get? I have been maintaining this approach to Netflix for a decade; when I finally decided to get caught up on Breaking Bad, I didn’t binge watch the series over a week; it took me over a year to get deeper involved in the abyss that Gilligan would put Walter and Jesse. And I never regretted that decision. There was something comforting in the fact that the following week there was going to be another episode for me to watch.
I’ve taken this approach even with other Netflix series, most recently Stranger Things and The Crown and Russian Doll. And I don’t regret for a second that I spent so much time watching an entire season. On the contrary, it gave me time to process and relish in the mystery of the series and the majesty of the performances.
And some servers are willing to meet you halfway. Hulu, which I never had much use for until recently, has been willing to drop some of its original series, in a staggered way. I’ve gotten a lot more pleasure out of Little Fires Everywhere watching it week by week than I ever would’ve if I’d decided to see it all at once. Watching Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington’s battle with their children and each other over a weekly basis has been much more savoring.
So, now that we’re all quarantine — and maybe when this period does, as it will, passes — we should make a deal with ourselves. Maybe designate one day a week for one particular streaming show you want to see. If you want to, do it for as many days as you can spare. And when you reach the end of the episode, and your service asks you if you want to see the next episode, just don’t. Make an agreement with yourself that you’re going to wait a week. We’re now in an era of forced patience, after all. This seems as good a time as any to try and exercise with our viewing habits.
It’s a suggestion. It may not come from the same logic of having to wait another eleven months for the next season of Ozark, but I put it forward just the same.