Binge-watching is the hottest way to watch television since your great-grandparents realized it wasn’t a radio and opened their eyes. As the name suggests, binge-watching entails viewing two or more episodes of a show sequentially and in one sitting. This practice of gorging oneself on entertainment whilst basking in the warm glow of the cathode ray god is nothing new. People have been binge-watching television programming marathons for years.
Anyone without a date on New Years Eve can tell you about the frustration in trying to choose between the Three Stooges marathon and the Twilight Zone. Of course with marathons you are still at the mercy of the station programmers when it comes to whether or not you have to sit through another Shemp to get to a coveted Curly. It wasn’t until the advent of DVD, and later the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, that viewers were given true autonomy when it came to their television watching habits. Want to see if a season of 24 works as well when watched in 24 actual hours? Go for it! Want to watch three hours of The Wonder Years? Go ahead. While you’re at it see if you can pinpoint when Fred Savage’s voice changed. Thus binge-watching became much more prominent and the phrase “just one more episode” became the bane of spouses everywhere.
It wasn’t long before streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon started developing their own original programming and amazingly they stuck to the same format that they had been using for unoriginal programming: all the episodes at once. This new method of introducing a full season of television from start to finish is certainly a game changer, but for good or ill?
The traditional structure of a weekly television show has always been to present a stand-alone story with a beginning, middle, and end every week. Even shows with larger, season-long narratives still adhere to this structure. Think Buffy or Supernatural with their “monster of the week” formulas. Sitcoms especially adhere to almost no continuity between episodes. You don’t want the viewer to have to remember any of last week’s shenanigans to enjoy this week’s brand new shenanigans.
The Netflix method changes this. Now you only have to remember last episodes shenanigans for the time it takes the theme song to play through. Instead of a weekly stand-alone story, individual episodes are more like chapters in a visual novel. A season of House of Cards feels less like a season of television and more like a 12-hour movie.
Here’s an interesting challenge. Think of your favorite episode of Seinfeld. It was pretty easy right? Also, if it’s not “The Contest” then you did it wrong. Now think of your favorite episode of Orange Is The New Black. A little harder right? You can visualize your favorite parts but you have trouble distinguishing between individual episodes. It’s kind of like if I asked you to name your favorite chapter in The Stand.
Now is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Some people have written about how shows like Hemlock Grove are ruining television. Namely because they have whole episodes where nothing happens to further the plot. This is only true if you look at Hemlock Grove the same way you would look at a weekly show like American Horror Story. If you take it as one long narrative as it was intended then you have to judge the show as a whole. You can no longer watch a couple of episodes to see if a show is good or not. Well you can, but it’s like taking 30 minutes out of a movie and then judging the whole film on the merits of that 30-minute chunk. You’re not getting the whole story. You have to watch the whole season to really judge if the story worked for you or not.
Arguably this presents a problem in terms of twists or surprises. If you were to binge-watch Game of Thrones, all those unexpected deaths would lose a lot of their gravity. Instead of taking a week to process what happened before diving back into Westeros, you are now going immediately into the next episode complete with whatever sadism George R.R. Martin has in store for you. All the red weddings in the world mean nothing if they have lost their ability to shock you.
Of course you have the option of watching one episode of House of Cards per week, but you won’t. Driven by a need for instant gratification you will either watch the whole series in a day or two, or risk an online spoiler from someone who has. Anyone who doesn’t think that Netflix original programming was meant for binge-watching is fooling themselves.
The truth about binge-watching though is that, like anything new, people assume the worst before all the kinks are out. Will it turn everyone into drooling couch potatoes who spend way too much time in front of the Boob tube? Um…people already do that without Netflix. The ten-hour block of Pawn Stars that The History Channel is running doesn’t need any help from a streaming service to kill your brain cells. Will it ruin the quality of television shows? Look, despite everyone touting its death, network television is still going to be around for a long time. Until you can properly explain to grandma how to use a computer, the According To Jims of the world and the Mike and Mollys have nothing to worry about. If you prefer weekly doses of your favorite programs you can still watch them that way. I personally don’t mind waiting a week between episodes of The Walking Dead. But then, I’ve never been a fan of fast zombies (ba-dum ching!).
This new way of presenting television shows all at once is just a different format than what we are used to. As always, there are going to be great stories and there are going to be crap stories. Remember your great-grandparents from the beginning of the article? Imagine all the horrible things that they probably predicted about television when it was brand new. Or rock and roll music. Or horseless carriages! What did they know?