Heading Downstream: The Cracks in the Binging Model
Blog Post by Jeremy Grayson (Jeremy G.)
[Television] Posted on April 4, 2016
To Binge or Not to Binge?
Late last November, Netflix released the entire first season of Jessica Jones, its newest Marvel Comics-based series, for public viewing. That same day, Amazon Prime unveiled the full premiere season of The Man in the High Castle to any and all of its subscribers. Ever the diligent viewer, I consumed The Man in the High Castle over the weekend, and plowed through Jessica Jones in the four days after. By the time a full week had gone by, I had finished both shows, fully prepared to discuss, debate, and dissect.
Yet by the time the Jessica Jones finale cut to black, I didn't feel the sudden rush to hit the Interwebs with my thoughts on the show. Mostly, I just felt exhausted. Much as I hated to admit it, I had watched too much, too fast, and hadn't given myself enough time to breathe between each episode before I hit "Play" on the next one.
Sure, you could foist the blame squarely on me – some friends of mine didn't complete Jessica Jones until weeks after it had ended, watching one episode – if that – a day, spending more time on other shows (and, presumably, things unrelated to television altogether). And to an extent, I understand. For the longest time, I turned my nose at the idea of binge-viewing, preferring to let the taste of each episode linger, and to savor the thrill of anticipation. After a while, though, the model demonstrated by Netflix and Amazon – release shows season by season, allowing audiences to catch up at their own pace – became too tempting to resist marathon viewing sessions, and I vociferously began gobbling up their original series as fast as my viewing eyes could carry me.
And yet, by the time I finished that late-November binge-a-thon, I was having serious second thoughts about the process of swift viewing. Those second thoughts have only intensified in recent months – even as I took my sweet time to watch all 10 episodes of Amazon's Mad Dogs, and as of this writing, have not even made it halfway through the second season of Marvel's Daredevil. I assumed that a resistance to binge-viewing would intensify my appreciation for those shows, but in reality, watching these shows at a leisurely pace only makes their flaws more recognizable – and actually makes the individual episodes more laborious to sit through. What's going on?
More Binge is the New Lack
Netflix arguably kicked off the idea of binge-viewing with its aggressive Breaking Bad marketing campaign a few years ago, inspiring new viewers to catch up before each new season. (Vince Gilligan even thanked Netflix after his show snagged the 2013 Emmy for Outstanding Drama, noting that the streaming site "kept us on the air.") But in the last few years, they've been manipulating the binge model in ways that are only growing more unappealing with time. The idea that streaming subscribers can "watch the show at their own pace" isn't quite as true as Netflix and Amazon want you to believe.
Let's look to the recent past – back to the good old days when all we had was TiVo and DVD. (Stone Age stuff, I know. Just bear with me.) At the turn of the 21st century, serialized television was no longer just a novelty. Thanks to acclaimed shows like Buffy and The Sopranos, great dramas were now expected to tell ongoing stories – not merely in brief serialized chunks (as had been done with varying degrees of success by several dramas in the '80s and '90s), but in lengthy arcs that could span an entire season or more. The very format of a TV "season" had, in fact, changed – writers were now encouraged to begin a lengthy storyline in a season's premiere and conclude it in the finale.
Before long, writers like Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams began referring to each episode as a "chapter" in the season, which was labeled a section in the expansive novel that was the entire series. But although long-term serialization was gaining steam, most TV writers still understood that they were working on a week-by-week basis, and that they had 22 hours of content to fill a year. So serialized arcs were punctuated by standalone episodes that helped fill out the season. Fighting against the complaint that these episodes were simply pointless filler, writers began using standalones to get creative with their shows' environments. The casual TV viewer could theoretically skip a "Hush" or a "Pine Barrens" and still follow the surrounding arc fairly well, but they would miss one of the show's most creative outings in the process.
In 2000, producers began releasing shows, season by season, on DVD boxsets. The first series to get this treatment was The X-Files, a '90s holdover which weighed standalone episodes against a series-long arc that grew deeper and more confusing with each season. The producers hoped to draw in new viewers who found themselves alienated (sorry about that) by the show's incomprehensible mythology. Before long, many other shows began appearing on DVD, regardless of how confusing their storyline – DVDs provided an easy way to hook new viewers, and to let old ones relive their favorite show's glory days.
Around the same time, TiVo began growing in popularity throughout the country. No longer did consumers need to rely on cumbersome VHS tapes in case they were out of town when the latest Ally McBeal aired. Digital recording allowed people to tape their favorite shows quickly and easily, even letting consecutive episodes accumulate into one large pile that could, if impulse served, be burned through over a rainy weekend.
TV producers took advantage of their viewers' increased urge for marathon-viewing as they increased their serialization. But even the most tightly written of narratives were still routinely written, at least partially, with the individual episode in mind. Nowhere was this more apparent than in FOX's 24, which constructed each of its seasons around the events of a single day. Although the stories constantly fed into each other through cliffhangers, making each season out to be a very lengthy movie, the writers quickly found themselves adapting to the serialized process by asking "What is this hour about?" Seasons were, for the most part, never planned out in advance – the writers knew they had to keep things intriguing, and thus focused on making each hour as tense as possible before moving on to the next one. (Even primetime soap operas, for all their lengthy arcing and interconnection, were written one week at a time – the best seasons of The OC are, not coincidentally, the ones that are most distinctively episodic.)
By the middle of the decade, television had become a richer and deeper place than ever, and plenty of shows began taking even greater advantage of its format by crafting full mythologies and three-dimensional worlds. Yet even there, the overarching narratives didn't conquer the series. Episodes of Lost could be distinguished from one another based on which character its flashbacks were focused on. Episodes of Battlestar Galactica routinely spotlighted individual conflict-and-resolution stories, week in and week out, even if the larger scope of the series remained practically immeasurable.
Serialized television has come a long way, even more so in the last decade. Yet… has it gone too far?
(Hey, You Think It's Easy Making Up These Titles?)
To this day, plenty of people view episodic stories as an encumbrance to lengthier arcs. Yet to an extent, however small, most TV shows need some sense of episodic identity. Sustaining a single story across 22 episodes, or 13, or even 10, is a difficult task because it asks your audience to have the patience to follow that story for a duration far longer than even the lengthiest of Hollywood films. A few shows have found their way around this problem by intensifying in scope – HBO, in particular, has produced series like The Wire, Deadwood, and Game of Thrones, each of which feature dozens of characters in multiple concurrent storylines. If one story thread slackens, another picks up the pace, and the individual beats to each story are spread far enough apart in each episode that the complete serialization of each season isn't quite as crippling.
But HBO, like all the other networks, produces its shows on a weekly schedule, and its producers thus understand that each episode – no matter how fully it ties into the surrounding arc – must be compelling on some level if it expects an audience to tune back in seven days later. And this is where the production difference between TV and the Internet comes into play.
A few years ago, Netflix began releasing original shows through its "full season in one shot" model. Amazon has followed suit, establishing streaming shows as remarkably distinct from their televised brethren. (Other original-programming streaming sites, such as Hulu, Crackle, and Seeso, still release original shows on a weekly schedule, and will thus be excluded from this portion of the discussion.) Serialization becomes more noticeable than ever in the binge-viewing format – and both Netflix and Amazon are clearly encouraging this format, with an Autoplay option that takes you right from the end of one episode to the start of the next. The idea of this increased serialization, apparently, is that it will more likely encourage viewers to watch many episodes, or even a full season, in one fell swoop.
Yet strangely, the more serialized a streaming series is, the less compelled I am to binge it. The difficulty in sustaining a single story across 13 episodes is made perfectly clear in the ultra-serialized takes on Netflix's aforementioned Marvel shows and Amazon's lopsided Man in the High Castle. When every episode – particularly around the middle of the season – is just a transitional step in a larger story, you need to throw in a lot of compelling material into each episode just to make that hour compelling. (And I do mean hour – only rarely do these already-laborious episodes dip below 50 minutes in length.) And frustratingly, many of these shows don't focus on making individual episodes compelling; they tease you with early signals of great things to come, hoping you'll stick through five or six slow and aimless hours to get to the forthcoming excitement. And in the age of Peak TV, when hundreds of faster-moving, non-streaming-original shows are literally just a click away, that's not an especially sound investment for either producer or consumer.
Nowhere are the problems with the streaming model more noticeable than in Mad Dogs, the TV show-turned-miniseries that Amazon released all 10 episodes of this past January. Produced by Shawn Ryan (creator of The Shield, an excellent cable drama that masterfully balanced episodic plots with larger ones), Mad Dogs tells the story of four friends trying to escape from Belize after a weekend excursion goes quickly south. There's enough genuine story here for a two-hour film, but at over eight hours of full running time, Mad Dogs huffs and puffs to sustain its momentum, contriving one absurd development after another and taking its story in numerous unrelated directions, only for the finale to haphazardly and perfunctorily tie everything together. (Fans of The Shield will recall how well that show's finale managed to tie together seven seasons' worth of story threads; Mad Dogs, comparatively, is barely capable of tying together those of one.) The writers had a starting point, and an ending point, but very little of what happened in the middle convinced me that they knew how to properly connect those two dots.
Conversely, the streaming shows I find myself more willing to binge (or at least watch at a quicker pace) are the more recognizably episodic: Bojack Horseman, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, Mozart in the Jungle, Orange is the New Black. Because these shows offer more tangible entertainment within each episode, there's a more compelling reason to stick around – what, we wonder, will be Kimmy's next clueless venture? Which Litchfield inmate will the next episode focus its flashbacks on? Even if the third season of Orange lacked a compelling narrative drive, the clear distinctive identity of each episode compelled me to finish it in under a week. (That's not to say that more-episodic streaming shows are necessarily better – see Fuller House or the overrated Transparent – but the episodic model overall works more effectively when it comes to quality storytelling.)
Netflix is clearly going to be in the original TV business for a while – it's releasing a new season to the public nearly every week – and while they won't divulge their numbers, they're clearly happy with the viewership of Daredevil and Sense8 and Bloodline and Narcos. Their common boast – that full-seasonal releases and binge-viewing are the way of the future – sounds confident in theory, and are particularly boosted by the ever-increasing utilization of the Internet. But if binge-able TV and quality TV are to exist harmoniously, streaming sites need to step back and understand precisely what made people want to start marathoning their favorite shows in the first place.
Jeremy Grayson is a writer for Critically Touched. He would label himself a "Critically Touched writer," but that just sounds kinda weird.
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