Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tired of Binge-Watching

With the recent release of so many streaming original favorites, social media is awash with the cries of people binge-watching. One month, everyone's binge-watching this and the next month, they're all binge-watching that. You have to tread forums and comment threads carefully to avoid spoilers and avoid recent podcasts altogether if you aren't one of the many binge-watchers. To be fair, I'm a binge-watcher myself on occasion, but I've grown tired of the concept as a cultural cliche.

One of the problems with binge-watching is how quickly the show is forgotten after its initial release. I haven't heard half as much about House of Cards in three seasons as I did when the new season first dropped and everyone decided to binge-watch it last month. I have scarcely heard a word about it since then, either. I like the option of watching them all at my leisure but I miss the revealing of plotlines and story development regularly scheduled viewing brings. I'd rather discuss each episode individually than the season as a whole and individual episodes are easily lost in whole season release format.

Further, binge-watching tends to cheapen what would essentially be the "charm" of a show - its formulae and tropes, callbacks and running gags. This is most apparent in sit-coms, where good-natured ribbing borders abusive derision and an upbeat tempo becomes nauseatingly childish upon repeated viewings. The negative qualities of these tropes become apparent to the viewer after a few episodes - the formula is laid bare - but would fall by the wayside if the shows were only seen on a weekly basis. The thrill of anticipation between episodes is entirely absent and what should be lovable inside jokes come across as lazy writing.

Remington Steele depended almost entirely on the onscreen romantic chemistry between the leads - so much so that the show did away with almost the entire supporting cast the second season - but was a very formulaic show as far as investigative procedurals go. The success of the show had to do with audience anticipation of the development of their relationship and whether or not it would turn romantic. Watched back-to-back, it's easy to lose those finer details in the midst of yet another paint-by-numbers murder mystery of the week.

Binge-watching is nothing new; cable networks have been programming "marathons" of every show at their disposal for the last 10-15 years or longer. But TV programming developed to be released on a weekly schedule deserves to be released in that manner - the anticipation and ongoing discussion is part of the viewing fun - and episodic fare meant to be binge-watched needs to up the ante to avoid falling into cliche.

One recent release developed with binge-watching in mind is Resident Advisors (now available on Hulu). A seven-episode release, each begins with a flash-forward to the season's finale. Although the episodes are designed to be self-contained and the wrap-around is nothing more than bookends for the series, it works for basic storytelling reasons:

Binge-watching sets its own expectations that must be met by the end of the season/series. These include longer and richer stories stretching over numerous episodes with their own throughlines and climaxes. These events have to affect smaller things (per episode), so the old sit-com formula where characters never develop or learn from their past may be on the way out.

Modern viewers have an expectation of the leads kissing (or better) by the end of the first season of Remington Steele and to withhold that would be anticlimactic, but the first season of Remington Steele is more than 20 episodes long! Resident Advisors is nothing more than your typical sit-com developed with binge-watching in mind, so its short run works in its favor; audiences will not only forgive the show if the leads do not become romantic by the end of the first season, it creates anticipation for the next season.

Shows like American Horror Story, True Detective, and Resident Advisors are finding ways to tell stories that maintain TV's episodic quality while addressing, and expanding upon, new viewing habits. Shows that do not start developing with an eye toward binge-watching are doing themselves and their audiences a disservice. I, for one, will take my new content in short bursts.

© Copyright 2015, The Cyberculturalist


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