Is Binge-worthy Always Best? Why Some TV shows Need a Speed Limit and Others Don't

Ellen Gray
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale
Philadelphia Daily News (TNS)

In television, the new mark of quality seems to be becoming the speed at which we consume a show.

New episode in 10 seconds … 9 seconds … 8 seconds …

Press pause. Do we really want to keep going?

I’ve lost untold hours of sleep to streaming TV — Netflix, Hulu, On Demand, you name it, I’ve overdone it — so I understand how hard it can be to just say no to finding out, immediately, what happens next.

But binge-worthy isn’t always the same as worthy. This seems obvious enough when we’re talking about food, or alcohol: Who talks about having eaten their feelings by attacking a quart of kale with a spoon? Whose binge-drink of choice is an $80 pinot noir?

In television, though, the new mark of quality seems to be becoming the speed at which we consume a show. And as someone whose job often involves watching multiple episodes, sometimes entire seasons, of series before writing about them, I’m starting to realize I’m part of the problem. Because if a show “ate my weekend,” as I once wrote of the first season of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” it has to be great, right? How else to justify time away from my family, my bicycle, the light of day?

Yet when I’m suggesting something “should be your next Netflix binge” — as I did last year with the British cop drama “Happy Valley” — all I really might mean is: Hey, I loved this. You might, too. The binge part’s optional.

Sometimes, deep, superbly crafted shows — “The Wire,” for instance — stand up under marathon viewing conditions. In its first run, I frequently saved a few episodes at a time to watch at once, and I’ve since rewatched entire seasons in a short period.

Often, though, what I’m feeling as I continue to press “play next” is the lack of pain.

After seeing the first two advance episodes of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” I had nightmares. I desperately wanted to see more, but at the same time was happy to wait. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian story about a post-United States, theocratic society in which women have been stripped of all rights is among the very best shows of 2017.

It’s dark, yes, but there are moments of sly humor, and the performances, including Elisabeth Moss’ as a woman enslaved for her fertility, are uniformly excellent. Hulu subscribers who haven’t already seen it may be tempted to go full throttle now that the whole first season’s available, if only to see why “The Handmaid’s Tale” has eight Emmy nominations. But I’d advise pacing yourself.

I see no need for a speed limit, though, on “The Last Tycoon,” whose nine-episode first season became available Friday to Amazon Prime customers. Adapted by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) from the last, unfinished novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Amazon’s “Tycoon” is the TV equivalent of a great beach book: a page-turner with larger-than-life characters, set in a glitzy, gossipy world of secrets. I watched the entire season over a few days, mostly because I was having too much fun to stop.

Matt Bomer (“White Collar”) stars as Monroe Stahr, an almost-too-good-to-be-true studio executive in 1930s Hollywood whose ideas clash with those of business-minded studio chief Pat Brady (Kelsey Grammer, in full Boss mode). Nearly everyone in “The Last Tycoon” is at least a little bit in love with Monroe: Pat’s daughter, Celia (Lily Collins); and his wife, Rose (Rosemarie DeWitt); Kathleen Moore (Dominique McElligott), the studio tour guide with the fetching Irish accent; even Pat himself, whose jealousy of the man he calls his partner threatens everything they’ve built together.

Costume designer Janie Bryant (“Mad Men,” “Deadwood”) has dressed them all beautifully, and the 1930s look marvelous. Oh, there are nods to the world outside the gates, where the Great Depression continues, and the repercussions of Hitler’s rise to power are felt at the studio level, but the melodrama is largely focused on the people inside and on an industry that’s always been in love with itself.

It’s not a perfect show, but it’s a pretty perfect binge-watch, if that’s how you choose to do it.

Not all shows are meant to be watched all at once, but that isn’t stopping networks from experimenting with the streaming services’ approach. TNT, for instance, has made all 10 episodes of its young-William Shakespeare series “Will,” which premiered July 10, available On Demand. USA’s delightful comedy “Playing House” had its entire third season On Demand and streaming on the network’s web site after its June 23 premiere. I haven’t yet found that much time for “Will,” but I’d endorse “Playing House” at any speed.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” aside, I’ll admit to some frustration that Hulu originals, unlike Netflix’s and Amazon’s, usually get doled out one a time. Acorn TV, a streaming service that specializes in imports from Britain and elsewhere, drove me a little crazy with its once-a-week delivery of the addictive murder mystery “Loch Ness,” which wrapped up its six-episode run last week.

So I’m no more patient than anyone else. But after spending a recent weekend trying to rewatch the entire sixth season of “Game of Thrones” (to prepare to write about the seventh) and growing more depressed by the hour, I was reminded that some shows need time to breathe. Or at least their fans do.

We could also use time to think.

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