F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time. If this is true, I may just be a genius, because I truly support both conflicting answers to the question I'm about to pose.
The question, of course, is nothing new — nor am I anywhere near the first person to pose it — but it's something I've been thinking about more and more recently, every time I finish consuming another gem from the canon of television: When watching an intentionally serialized piece of art, is it better to delay or to demand? To wait, or not to wait?
Now, it won't surprise you to hear that this question re-entered my mind during the closing credits of Breaking Bad's mid-season finale. My brain barely had time to release the endorphin rush from watching Hank's Walt Whitman toilet epiphany before it reloaded with a surge of anger. How the hell do they expect us to wait a year to finish this?! I mean, as over-used as the expression is, I felt like I truly couldn't wait until next season. And then, of course, it became clear: Isn't the waiting the best part?
Yes, it is.
Well, then again, no...
But, in a way...
Damn you, Fitzgerald!
I recently made a list of all my favorite TV shows, then assigned each into one of two sub-categories — Appointment or Addiction. The Appointment shows, as implied, were watched in honest, respectable old-school TV fashion. I waited eagerly for a certain time on a certain day, once a week, every week, spending years and sometimes painstaking off-years with the same group of characters until the inevitably polarizing finale closed the book. The Addiction shows, named for their ability to command ravenous Netflix or Hulu viewing, were shows that I either missed partially (or entirely) during their first run, or simply never bothered to watch. Usually the former.
Now, my list might reveal my youth a bit, but bear with me — it's just an exercise. The point is for you to think of your own, and realize my dual point.
First, we have the Appointment shows. For me, the highlights were The X-Files (right), The Practice, The Sopranos, Oz, Lost, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, and currently, Louie, Veep and Homeland.
Then, there are the Addictions. Each devoured in one or two hermitic weekends inside a lightless room, or from a quilt-covered couch with a seasonal flu. These include The West Wing, Mad Men, The Wire, The (UK) Office, Extras, Arrested Development, Freaks & Geeks (below left), Scrubs, Damages, Dexter, Eastbound & Down, Summer Heights High, Game of... Okay, I'll stop here. But if you're anything like me, it will start to become clear that the Addiction List grows much longer. In today's OnDemand, live-streaming, instant gratification culture, it seems that our time and attention is more preferably spent finishing what we've started, voraciously and without delay.
Now, this method has its obvious benefits. For one thing, it seems that immediate back-to-back viewing is the way certain shows — especially dramas — were intended to be watched. Similar to reading an engrossing novel (Mad Men) or a page-turning spy book (24), or even a campy beach read (True Blood), it's almost ludicrous to deny the impulse to turn to the next chapter. And while DVRs have made commercial interruptions virtually obsolete, the week-long intervals between complex story arcs go against every natural instinct we have as a viewer or reader or listener. The prolonged cliff-hanging sensation can indeed be wonderful, but does the art truly necessitate it? Isn't its torturous sluggishness simply a product of advertising that goes back to the days of Dickens? (See: Great Expectations, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, and Sherlock Holmes.)
A great story wants to be told. An avid reader wants to read. Some of my fondest TV-watching memories are actually quite similar to devouring books as a child. Sure, the dim flashlight under the covers has been replaced by the blue glow of an LCD, but the experience is essentially identical. The same late-night hours dwindle away, the same feverish curiosity races through the chapters, and the same sense of complete immersion allows an escape from the outside world. Temporarily, sure, but fully. The art exists in its purest form, a complete experience devoid of complication. If it were love, it would be that lusty, teenage, Romeo & Juliet love. Attraction and fulfillment.
But the analogy of love actually reveals the problem with such unadulterated consumption: it doesn't require any discipline to enjoy. In a column for Wired magazine, comedian/author Patton Oswalt describes the imminent state in which the easily-accessible glut of pop culture will eventually eat itself — a state he calls "ETEWAF" — or "Everything That Ever Was — Available Forever." And while he was making a larger point about the detriment to creativity caused by constant rebranding and re-booting of cultural archetypes, the silly acronym actually speaks to something quite depressing. Almost everything we watch is immediately available. And it always will be. Thousands of once-anticipated hours, filled with torturous excitement and emotional reflection, are now stacked up neatly and painlessly for anyone to devour at will. Dying to know what happens next? Just click NEXT. No problem.
But that is the problem.
I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. When the show Lost premiered, I saw the pilot episode on TV and was blown away. I'd never seen anything like it. And neither had my college roommates and friends, who regularly watched with me every Wednesday night as we were fed the sprawling mystery, bite by bite. In between, we theorized about what the island represented, and read the bottomless cache of blogs and message boards pointing out the hidden symbolism and buried clues. I remember the covers of Entertainment Weekly, the cast becoming celebrities, the friends who came over, and the restaurant from where we'd order food. It was a phase of my life, attached to multiple distinct memories that surrounded and enhanced the experience. It was ritualistic, communal, and gave us something to look forward to. "Oh, it's Wednesday … Lost is on tonight!"
Now, compare that to six years later, when my wife picks up the Netflix remote and says, "you know, I've actually never seen Lost..." Cut To: Me, walking home to a dark apartment, noticing that she's at the end of Season 2 and it's only been a day and a half! She's on an episode where a character, locked in a hatch, has to hit a mysterious button every 108 minutes or his world will presumably end. When the episode finishes, my wife hits the button on the remote without thinking. She does this every 42 minutes. Locked in our apartment. I don't mention the irony.
Now, whose experience was better? Or can't they just be equal, but different? All I know is that the faster I burn through a show, the more alone I usually am. Conversely, I watched the finale of The Sopranos in a room with 20 people. It was amazing watching everyone's reaction when the screen cut to black — an experience I'll never forget. But was it amazing because it was inherently amazing, or because I had waited seven years for that moment? All the yearning, tension, disappointment, and catharsis… If it were love, forget Romeo and Juliet; It was Odysseus and Penelope.
Now, it would be perfectly logical around this time to point out that one's TV-watching experience is usually a product of circumstance. Either a show is currently on TV or it's not. Either you DVR it every week, or your only option is to watch it all at once. But I guess what I'm asking is: in a perfect world, which would you prefer? If there were a hypothetical magic button that could play the entire current season of football for you on command, would you push it? Or is the Sunday ritual part of what you enjoy about football season? Is the destination better if the journey is prolonged?
You may have noticed that the one show I didn't mention in my lists above — which happens to be the catalyst for the entire story — is Breaking Bad. This is because it is the only show that I started watching by catching up late yet currently watch every week. A beautiful hybrid of Appointment and Addiction. It also happens to be — episode for episode — my favorite show of all time. Now, is this because I enjoyed it through both platforms, swinging the pendulum from gluttony to starvation, impatience to… well, a more painful form of impatience? I'm starting to think instead that it's the content that dictates the result, not the manner in which it's consumed. But I'm not sure.
Guess I'll have to wait and see.