DAVID BIANCULLI

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ERIC GOULD

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LINDA DONOVAN

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Contributors

ALEX STRACHAN

GARY EDGERTON

ROGER CATLIN

MIKE HUGHES

KIM AKASS

GERALD JORDAN

TOM BRINKMOELLER

NOEL HOLSTON

 
 
 
 
 
Binge-Watching Is a Sugar Rush — and It’s Good for You
June 25, 2019  | By Alex Strachan
 
Back when people watched TV the old-fashioned way, the term "binge-watching" hadn’t become part of the public lexicon yet. This was ages ago, mind you — all the way back in 2014.
 
True, we had entire seasons of TV shows in DVD box sets, and AMC, HBO, and other premium-cable channels were doing a healthy business in marathons of ongoing and soon-to-retire programs. Turner programming boss Kevin Reilly, then entertainment president of the Fox Network, said at the time — only half-jokingly — that the real reason a new Fox program he was proud of hadn’t found an audience was that he’d had the misfortune to premiere it opposite a last-minute Walking Dead marathon on AMC.
 
Mad Men writer-creator Matt Weiner insisted at the time that Mad Men be shown once a week, and not more than that. Mad Men was a slow burn, justifiably recognized for its slow-moving character arcs and attention to emotional detail. Fans would appreciate Mad Men more, Weiner reasoned, if they had a whole week to mull over the show’s subtle shades and ever-shifting emotional landscape. The problem with watching episodes back-to-back, he said, was that a lot of that character detail would go overlooked in the rush to click onto the next episode.
 
It’s tough to have a communal conversation around the water cooler, after all, if everyone’s watching a show at different times, and at their own pace.

Game of Thrones  — despite its final season proving a profound disappointment to many of its more ardent fans — is being called TV’s last true communal conversation starter, precisely because HBO insisted on parceling episodes out one at a time, rather than releasing them all at once.
 
That meant fans could argue all week long over how wretched the previous week’s was, only to start the argument all over again the moment the next wretched episode aired a week later.
 
Game of Thrones ended for good little more than five weeks ago, but hardly anyone, aside from a handful of still-embittered fans, cares anymore.
 
Aside from reality TV — broadcast-network shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, which concludes Wednesday, remain immune to binge-watching, because of their in-the-moment vibe — Game of Thrones may well have been the last true water cooler show, even as water coolers themselves have gone the way of the kerosene lamp and cast-iron stove.
 
Now, and not just thanks to Netflix, most of us prefer to watch TV all in one go than to pace it out in weekly installments.
 
Radio Times survey in the UK last week found that 80% of respondents admitted they’d lost sleep binge-watching a show. But wait, there’s more. Half those who responded — 50 percent — admitted to watching more than eight hours of a show in a single sitting. (Perhaps Weiner was onto something there: that’s an awful lot of Mad Men to digest in just one sitting.)
 
Eight hours also happens, not to put too fine a point on it, to be how long it would take you to binge-watch the entire final season of Game of Thrones, even taking into consideration the episodes’ longer running times.
 
Binge-watching is satisfying not only because you can pick and choose when you want to watch something, but also because you no longer have to put up with TV shows playing games with you. 

Cliffhangers are still a valid, fun way to end an episode, but now you can decide for yourself when to learn whether Capt. Kirk outran the giant yang-yang, or whether Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon was going to char-burn that scruffy bearded loser with the dagger. People lead increasingly busy, crowded lives; they shouldn’t have to wait an entire week to find out how and if an existential TV crisis is resolved. Binge-watching means they no longer have to.
 
Similarly — and I do this often — you can stop in the middle of an episode and pick it up the following day or week, without worrying about missing the ending.

Despite what Weiner said, binge-watching can make one appreciate the effort and thought that went into mapping out an entire season of stories. The flaws show more readily, but so do the fine points of well-crafted story arcs, when they’re carefully thought out. The Good Fight, one of my favorite programs of the moment, is assiduously constructed into self-contained, hour-long episodes, but to binge-watch it — as I have done every season so far — is a dazzling experience. The episodic stories are compelling in their own right, but a lot is going on, too, from one episode to the next, in terms of theme and subtext. The Good Fight, to my eyes, just might be the most underrated, unfairly overlooked drama in all of television right now. (As noted earlier by Mike Hughes here at TVWW, CBS is showing early, first-season episodes Sunday nights, for the next several weeks. It’s as a binge-view, though, on CBS All Access, that one realizes it’s in Netflix and HBO territory. Yes, The Good Fight is that good.)
 
Those who don’t care for binge-watching — and the detractors are out there — complain that spoilers are even more annoying in the era of binge TV because major plot twists are public knowledge the moment an entire season goes online. (This is an unwinnable fight either way, in my view; when I was writing a column for my local newspaper chain, a reader in the UK complained bitterly that I had ruined a Walking Dead plot twist from a season finale that had aired in the US three years earlier. Three years! That did not, however, stop the reader from calling me a terrible journalist.)
 
The ship has sailed on the whole issue of spoilers in any event: More and more media outlets are demanding live-blogging and live tweeting, tweeting about TV as it actually airs, which means the outrage over who ended up sitting on the iron throne was out there in a matter of seconds. 

Binge-watching is often accused of spelling the end of TV watching as a communal experience, but as anyone who’s sat through a family Thanksgiving dinner will tell you, communal experiences are, generally speaking, overrated.
 
Watching a complex drama week by week allows us time to concoct elaborate theories about what’s going on, but binge-watching affords us the same opportunity. Just because you can watch eight straight hours of anything doesn’t mean you have to.
 
And watching in weekly increments does have its place, as Weiner argued. I still have fond memories of Lost, and while it likely still works as a binge-view, the weekly wait was one of the reasons I kept watching to the end. (To be fair, I never had the issue with Lost’s series finale that others did, but that’s an argument for another day.)
 
That said, had Lost debuted today on, say, Netflix, I suspect it would have proven just as popular with audiences as, say, Stranger Things (top).
 
Similarly, who’s to say The West Wing, if released as entire seasons on Netflix, wouldn’t have proven as compellingly watchable — and talked about — as House of Cards.
 
The broadcast networks have always argued, with good reason, that network dramas like NCIS and This Is Us have to be shown one week at a time because production schedules — six to eight working days, on average, for each hour-long episode — and the large number of episodes required for a single season (18 to 24 episodes on average, vs. streaming services’ preferred eight to 10 episodes), make it impossible for showrunners and series producers to keep up.

That doesn’t mean complex, labor-intensive, costly-to-make series like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things can’t be made in advance, though. The Sopranos proved that audiences are willing to wait a long time between seasons if they find a series compelling enough.
 
And that’s arguably the last and biggest thing in binge-watching's — and streaming services’ — favor. You have the power of life and death. You know ahead of time how many episodes have been made, and the time commitment required. You don’t have to worry that you’ll try a new series and find yourself enjoying it, only to have it yanked away after just two or three episodes.

Likewise, if a new series is impossibly bad — and Netflix has had a few of those — you can walk away, on your own terms. Thanks to the streaming services, which base their entire business model on binge-watching, the tired network argument, “It didn’t find an audience,” just won’t wash anymore. 
We can all argue whether Arrested Development really needed more development. But at least, this way, thanks to Netflix, we have the power to watch or not watch all at once or incrementally.
Truth is, Arrested Development was never going to get a second chance on a broadcast network — let alone a third.

Like it or hate it, binge-watching is here to stay.
 
 
 
 
 
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