In Defense of Binge-Watching Television

Episodes have their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row. Cliffhangers and suspense need time to breathe. Episode recaps and online communities provide key analysis and insight. 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. Taking breaks maintains the timeline of the TV universe.

Those are five reasons why we should put an end to binge-watching our favorite television shows as outlined by Slate’s Jim Pagels in July 2012, when the writer took to task the art of spending an entire weekend zooming through 13 episodes of, say, Homeland without even as much as considering going outside, taking a shower, or slipping out of those comfy jogging pants you love to wear around the house. “I’m not saying that you must watch a show when it originally airs in order to fully enjoy it,” he said. “But there’s a proper way to do so, one that maintains the integrity of the art form.” (“Stop Binge-Watching TV”, 9 July 2012)

Oh, integrity, schmintegrity. There’s a reason why the television was once dubbed The Boob Tube, and that reason has precisely nothing to do with virtue: Watching TV is an escape. It’s a distraction from the stresses of our everyday lives, regardless of if we prefer a thick and provocative narrative (The Wire) or a made-up version of what reality is supposed to be (The Real Housewives of Timbuktu). Critiquing one’s personal preferences for television consumption isn’t just idiotic — it’s shallow. If the very medium we are considering is designed to be an alternative to the hustle, bustle and disappointments of real life, how on Earth could one feasibly justify critiquing the way it’s interpreted and consumed? It’s like telling a child he’s not allowed to be happy because his grandmother gave him a candy bar. I mean, just let the kid enjoy the chocolate, and shut up already, will you?

Actually, the more relevant issue at hand here is that somebody is actually even able to write about binge-watching television in the first place. Twenty years ago, Pagels’ list wouldn’t have been possible. Save for those with a VCR and a subhuman level of patience, the entire practice of spending Sunday afternoons watching half of Mad Men‘s third season on your couch wasn’t even an option, let alone a viable approach to becoming a fan of something. These days, the art has become a phenomenon of its own. Don’t believe me? Take it from Aaron Riccio at CNN.

“Watching, reading or listening to anything creative requires a suspension of disbelief, an investment of our reality in theirs,” he wrote, “Every commercial break erodes that thin and personal connection a little; weeklong gaps between episodes stretch us closer and closer to the point at which our attention snaps and moves elsewhere. Viewership declines, sometimes before a show has an opportunity to catch on, as with the often-discussed Firefly or the more recent Last Resort, which struggled to find the hook that would keep audiences coming back.

“The pacing of some shows hardly even works on an individual level,” he continued. “Though he wouldn’t dare to tell you how to watch it, creator David Simon would probably agree that binging on the entirety of The Wire at once, letting the bigger picture wash over you, would bring you closer to his vision for the show.” (“Binge-watching makes TV better”, by Aaron Riccio, CNN, 6 February 2013)

Yup. Riccio was on to something with his The Wire observation. Simon, himself, has stated trillions of times that in order to fully appreciate his critically-acclaimed and fan-obsessed HBO series, one must view each moment, each episode and each plot twist as nothing more than a small piece of a long story he wanted to tell (see: The moment Stringer Bell bites the dust at the end of Season 3). In fact, according to Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph, it was that particular long-view approach to storytelling that ultimately began the very binge-watching plan of attack in which so many people invest these days while pondering television. 

“The binge phenomenon arguably began by accident with the greatest TV series of all time: The Wire,” he wrote, “With its complex, drawn out plot, overarching and overlapping story lines, lengthy character studies and dispensation with overbearing traditional plot devices, The Wire became perfect fodder for the binge-stream generation. Initially a victim of poor ratings, it became a word of mouth hit as viewers indulged in extended DVD boxset and (not always legal) internet streaming sessions… Consumers soon discovered that The Wire wasn’t the only series suited to chocolate-fuelled, laptop-in-bed sessions. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, True Blood; it isn’t by mistake that the series driving the binge pandemic have been the best television for decades. Endurance viewing strips away the fig leaf of the weekly episode format, revealing ropey plot lines and repetitive tropes. Overindulging on mediocrity just isn’t fun.” (“Gorging on House of Cards: How Netflix has turned binge TV viewing mainstream”, The Telegraph, 7 February 2013)

This, of course, leads us to the launch of Netflix’s latest play for revolution in television consumption: House of Cards. The American adaptation of the BBC series, which itself was based on a Michael Dobbs novel, has been all the talk among those who turned in their cable television packages for Internet subscriptions long ago. The most celebrated and prolific move that Netflix has made in its attempt to become a trusted source for original television programming has made waves not only because of the decision to release all of the first season’s episodes at once, but also because… well, as a friend recently wrote in an email, “This shit is good.”

Indeed, the most shocking and/or improbable element of the series is how favorably it compares with the big boys of traditional TV’s most popular dramatic programming. Modernized and Americanized, House of Cards is a fabulously addictive tale of power, money, corruption, lies and manipulation set against what in essence becomes the understated beauty (aesthetically speaking) of the Washington D.C. area. It looks like normal TV. It feels like normal TV. And it presents itself like normal TV. 

But, of course, it’s not normal TV. Or, more accurately, it’s not normal TV … yet

Why is that? Well, like it or not, distribution through the Internet is where the state of television is clearly going. And to the possible dismay of Mr. Pagels, the decisions based on method of release have already been made as such: Unleash the seasons in one fell swoop and watch as the crazed animals called viewers chew up and spit out each episode in a matter of 48 to 72 hours. And if anybody thinks House of Cards isn’t enough proof that this is how the practice is going to be, just wait until Netflix does the same thing with the Arrested Development reboot slated for later this spring.

What adds to the intrigue in all of this is the notion that the approach is actually … working. With hindsight in mind, it should be a no-brainer that it was only a matter of time until this whole approach became the norm: TV on DVD has been a phenomenon of its own over the last five to ten years, and we all know the genesis of the entire binge-watching movement lies not in Netflix, but within the very second something as simple as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air had its first season released in a four-DVD set. From that point on, the all-at-once option became imbedded in our viewing habits and before anyone could even mutter the words Saved By The Bell, everybody with a remote interest in television developed a hunger for ownership of entire series. 

From there, the rest has been TV-consumption history. 

“Binge viewing is being touted as the new way to watch television, though the idea has been around for awhile,” The Modesto Bee‘s Pat Clark wrote, “I know several people who’ve caught up on past seasons of series they’d previously missed by doing this, spending a finite stretch of time watching on the Internet or DVDs. … Binge viewing is just the latest in a long line of instant-gratification options the Internet and all its offshoot technology continues to afford. 

“We’re an impatient society and growing more impatient every day, with every new advance,” Clark continued before adding, “Appointment TV isn’t going away anytime soon. But it’s not the only bar stool in the joint anymore, either.” (“CLARK: Binge TV viewing”, The Modesto Bee, 11 February 2013)

One must wonder, then, how long it will be until our behinds start feeling comfortable perched in this new resting spot as we wait for a drink. And if the success of House of Cards and the all-around popularity of binge-watching is any indication, that trusted, older chair in the corner might want to replace a few of its legs and grab a heating pad. Because with each click of a DVD player’s remote and each announcement regarding web-based original programming taking the all-at-once approach, one thing has become abundantly clear: The idea of how we consume television as viewers is changing by the minute.

And as anyone who’s ever spent a weekend leafing through episode after episode of Homeland in an attempt to figure out if Nicolas Brody is indeed a turncoat could tell you, binge-watching is only the beginning of what promises to be somewhat of a revolution in the way we address our own personal TV habits, regardless of tradition.

Regardless of integrity.