When Game of Thrones first came out back in 2010, it took all my willpower to refrain from watching each new episode. I’d learned my lesson over the years: the long wait, week after week, would be excruciating. Instead, I patiently waited for the season finale and then spent a long weekend devouring the entire first season.
The experience was not entirely unspoiled, as everyone and their mother couldn’t stop babbling about the upset in episode 9 (Ned gets his head chopped off – oops, spoiler warning! But then again, where have you been for the past 6 years?) so I knew beforehand how that plot line would turn out. Waiting for the season to be over because I watched was a practice I abandoned for the next 5 seasons, simply because I just couldn’t wait that long, and spoilers are the bane of my existence.
Since then, I’ve made it a habit to exercise restraint when it comes to lower-profile shows, or at least those that don’t make the internet explode whenever something significant happens. I couldn’t possibly do that with GoT any more, or The Walking Dead, or even The Leftovers. Nor do I have the patience to wait from September until May to binge-watch the full 22-episode season of a show I’m invested in.
But with all these Netflix original shows and varιous limited series popping up in recent years, let alone all those other shows that didn’t catch my attention the first time around, binge-watching is fair game; rather, it’s actually preferable: you get to enjoy as many episodes as you can handle, with the certainty that the finale is just around the corner, ready and waiting for your viewing pleasure.
Is it really better this way?
In the case of fun and digestible shows, nothing could be better than knowing you can enjoy multiple episodes at once, often entire seasons over the course of a weekend. How I Met Your Mother was one such case for me – I was completely oblivious to Ted’s dating history and Neil Patrick Harris’s charm during the first few years and only caught up when it was in its 6th or 7th season. Dexter was another, and it became the perfect viewing fodder during last year’s summer vacation. White Collar, Parks & Recreation, even Nip/Tuck back in the day were all wonderful to binge on for a few weeks and then not think twice about them once they were done.
Would I have been a faithful viewer had I started watching the conventional way right from the pilot episode? Possibly, but there’s a strong chance I might have given up during an off season, as most multi-season shows famously lose a bit of their edge at some point or are completely derailed and then culminate in a universally criticized finale. But the certainty that the show’s conclusion would be available to me sooner, rather than much later, was motivation enough to keep watching even when the plot became less than stellar.
The same goes for several mini series or for shows where each season is a stand-alone complete story; Fargo is one such example, The Girlfriend Experience and Flesh And Bone another. The Night Of would typically fall under this category, but I feel like it’s in a league of its own, and I might have even benefited from a normal viewing experience rather than a 3-day marathon, as there was a LOT to digest from episode to episode (not so much in complicated plot lines but in terms of emotional engagement). Regardless of their impact, however, there’s no denying that most of those shows read more like extended movies than actual television, and are probably best enjoyed in one or a few sittings, rather than from week to week.
But how about the shows that aren’t that far along in their multiple season run? As much as I enjoy sitting down to a full 10- or 13- episode arc of a new show and devouring the entire season, it only makes the waiting period until the next one is available that much longer – and, in some cases, more excruciating.
I was perfectly content to watch a full season and then not waste a moment’s thought on Orange Is The New Black or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt until the following year, because they are nothing more than something enjoyable to pass the time (well, UKS at least; OITNB completely lost me when season 3 came out and I’ve never looked back since).
But is Netflix really doing us a favor by releasing Jessica Jones all in one go? Is Amazon, when each season of Bosch or The Man In The High Castle becomes available? As much as I loved Jessica’s story arc, as loatheas I might have been to wait a full 13 weeks to reach its finale and the resolution of the Kilgrave plot line, maybe it might have been a more substantial watching experience. I binge-watched the second season of Bosch as soon as it was released and a couple of months later I didn’t even remember if I had watched it, let alone what happens – and it’s not because the show is lacking in some way. If anything, it holds more interest for me, having read the entire Harry Bosch book series by Michael Connelly. I took up The Man In The High Castle on a friend’s recommendation, finished it over the course of a few days, and now I don’t even remember where it left off – and we still have about 3 months to go until season 2 is released. Even super-limited series like Sherlock, which only release 3 episodes a season, aren’t exactly ideal for binge-watching. The last episode of season 3 ended all the way back in February 2014, and the one-off special released last January was neither enough to keep us going until the fourth season, whenever that may be, nor up to the standards of previous episodes.
Ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, these shows were meant to be savored, not devoured in one sitting; alas, as with most things these days, we just can’t control our appetites when the product is readily available, served and fit for immediate consumption. It’s as though we’re being enticed, seduced, taunted even, and more often than not we give in to our urges because instant gratification almost always wins over the classic ‘slow and steady wins the race’ adage.
For readily digestible shows, binge-watching is the way to go; but, for me, exercising restraint is often beneficial for the viewer when it comes to rich, complicated plot lines or heavier, denser content, unless you don’t mind a second viewing. Take Arrested Development, for instance; it’s a non-conventional sitcom, but a sitcom nonetheless. Yet almost no one can claim to have caught all the in-jokes and references after just one viewing. Or try watching the first few Shameless seasons back to back, as I did: there’s so much that goes on from episode to episode, with so little time to process, that by the time I was finished I had a hard time keeping track of all the drama surrounding the Gallagher clan.
And when we’re talking about more drama or action-packed shows, well that just complicates things further. I devoured all three seasons of Graceland and, although I thoroughly enjoyed it, there was a lot that didn’t sit well with me as the seasons progressed. The show took a much darker turn after its initial season, and the contrast was infinitely more stark simply because I took no time off between each season. There’s so much going on, so many convoluted plot points and secrets to keep track of, that in the end it all becomes one big blur. It almost feels like you don’t get time to recover in between each new plot twist or shocking cliffhanger like you normally would if you watched on a weekly basis.
More to the point, imagine someone who hadn’t watched Lost back when she show aired, and just sat down to binge-watch all six seasons, trying to make sense of all the unanswered questions, without the benefit of the water-cooler conversation that sprung week after week and intensified as the show progressed. They’d be overwhelmed, confused, and probably lost (excuse the pun), simply because with densely packed shows, unlimited availability can oven become a disadvantage.
Do I often wish I could just watch an entire season of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead over a weekend? Sure, but do I actually want to? Binge-watching isn’t fit for every show out there, and that’s definitely the case for these two. For one thing, by the end of the season and before I could even allow myself to start watching, I’d probably already know, more or less, what’s going on, unless I could manage to cut myself off from every spoiler-filled site or social media platform – and we know that’s an exercise in futility. But even if I did achieve to shield myself off from spoilers, would I really be able to fully appreciate each and every detail, the way it’s supposed to be enjoyed? There’s so much literature accompanying every episode the week following its release – from articles and blog posts to podcasts and YouTube videos – that offer in-depth analysis, track and explain easter eggs and other references, delve into each character or story arc and generally function as a means to decompress and recover from whatever emotional impact each episode just delivered (Talking Dead is a prime example of just how necessary that is sometimes, even when dealing with what is essentially a zombie show) that disregarding it all and just plowing on to the next one would just mean you’re missing out on so much material that would help enhance your viewing experience.
This became even more evident when I watched last season of House of Cards. Naturally I finished it over the course of a few days, but when I sat down to write a review, nothing really stood out as a major event, no single character arc seemed to deem further exploration, no detail demanded a second look, because it all simply melded into a big lump of manipulation, deceit and blind ambition that the show is renowned for. Similarly, as much as I enjoyed immersing myself into the nostalgic world of Stranger Things last summer, in retrospect I might have preferred to savor each episode before jumping onto the next one.
Being able to binge-watch a substantial show feels a little bit like holding your breath before a long dive; instead of enjoying the ride, you keep your eye on the prize – the finale – and rush through it so you can finally draw your next breath.
And at the end of the day, episodic TV wasn’t originally made to be enjoyed this way. There’s a reason why the only shows airing 5 episodes a week are soap operas – easily digestible, frivolous and lacking in quality in every aspect, from production values down to the script, direction and performances.
Having said all that, I’m still torn on the subject of binge-watching. On one hand, it’s utterly convenient and at least temporarily satisfies my cravings. Then again, so does a bowl of pop corn. But a well-cooked three course meal requires you to take your time and enjoy every bite.
And so should a well-made TV show.