11
Feb
2012
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People
Michael Richardson vs Chris: Television Binging
Michael Richardson and Chris
Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People is a weekly chance for two Review to Be Named Staffers to come together and engage in a conversation about issues where they don't see eye to eye. Sure, the title may be more aspirational than accurate, and the tone may vary from week to week depending on the level of passion and the strength of discourse. Civilized Discussions Between Reasonable People will be an outlet for RTBN writers, who, for the most part, all love each other, to revel in the two things we love even more: pop culture and arguing.


THIS WEEK: Michael vs. Chris on television binging.

Michael

TV is a dangerous drug. It can cause irritability (cable news), feelings of euphoria (AMC:Breaking Bad - Mad Men), depression (AMC:The Killing - Hell on Wheels), and paranoia (Bravo). It is also terribly addictive. When finally getting around to watching Breaking Bad this fall, I found myself pitying these poor fools who let meth ruin their lives by turning them into shambling shells of themselves. Then I realized that I had watched 8 episodes in a row and hadn't showered or left my bedroom in that time. Something had gone terribly wrong.

As TV has gotten easier to consume, through Netflix and its ilk, binging has become more and more prominent. A hangover or a general malaise is now reason enough to watch half a season of television. Portlandia picked up this thread in a brilliant sketch about Battlestar Galactica, perhaps the most binge-prone show in recent memory. But there seems to me to be two pertinent questions when we talk about addictive television: what makes certain shows addictive, and is watching one episode right after the next the best way to experience television in general?



The first question is mostly just a matter of taste. Shows I've been compelled to push through include Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. Now, I want to specifically separate the kind of binging I'm talking about with, say, watching a bunch of episodes of Law and Order. Law and Order is good for background noise, and at the end of an episode you can just turn it off. Battlestar Galactica does not allow you to turn it off. It combines a slow-burning season-long plot line with threads tracing through all the episodes, while offering a substantial storyline each week. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones don't even bother with the individual stories to the same extent - they let the season speak as a whole. While particular episodes, like "Fly" or "A Golden Crown" contain elements that stand out, both are rendered meaningless without the other episodes directly surrounding it. The most plot-driven shows are the ones that hook inside your brain and force you to watch the next episode, if only so you can put what just happened into it's proper context. Battlestar did this incredibly well, by always leaving a couple of threads hanging to be picked up by the next episode. It didn't need to have a twist ending or a big "to be continued" - sometimes you just wanted to see how the major characters would react to what happened in the previous episode. It was downright devious.

The problem comes when watching a show quickly obscures some of the nuances of the show. Breaking Bad is a very deliberate experience. The entire season has a break-neck pace, but each individual episode is mostly made up of small character moments and small steps of action. Game of Thrones is mostly monologues interspersed with occasional horse decapitations. I don't worry that I missed some of the nuance of Battlestar Galactica - despite the pretensions of its mythology, it was never a particularly deep show where every detail mattered. But I do wonder if I ever missed some potent symbolism or deliberate storytelling in other shows because I was so eager to move onto the next episode rather than consider what I had just watched.

What do you think Chris? What makes you binge when it comes to television, and do you think it affects the experience at all?


Chris

I don't think any of us would be working on this site if we weren't addicted to some form of pop culture, and for most of us, I think TV is our drug of choice. Hell there was a time when I would have followed strangers down dark foreboding alleys at the promise of an early look at next week's Lost or Battlestar Galactica, and I would have done so with a smile on my face and the BSG tribal drum intro in my heart.

That's the problem with any kind of junkie: we don't know when/how to cut ourselves off, and as you said, the Internet has removed most the of the traditional barriers that used to exist to impede the mass consumption of television like having to purchase expensive box sets of DVDs. We want more episodes of the shows we like, and when it's this easy to get them, the only thing stopping us is our own individual determination of whether this is truly enhancing or harming the viewing experience. And to lesser degree other, more stupid things. Like spending time with friends and significant others.

Once you start binging on a show, I think it's very hard to go back to watching it at a more traditional pace. When I started watching Mad Men a couple years back, I became accustomed to watching four or five episodes at a time. And while I love the show and would be quick to point to it as one of the five best things currently on television, I have to say that it's methodical pacing was much more enjoyable when I knew I had another episode to watch right after. Likewise while most people count Season 2 as their least favorite season of Lost, I enjoyed it just fine by plowing through the whole thing in a matter of weeks, feeling very fulfilled in the experience rather than frustrated with the incremental plot advancement that confounded weekly viewers.

Battle Star Galactic is a great example of a binge show, though I only binged the first two seasons, as after that I had caught up to the show's SciFi airing schedule and there was no way I was going to wait for the the full season release(an interesting side note that we should get to later is how to handle situations like these, do you prefer to wait for a binge or be up to date as the series progresses?). The show, with the exception of certain parts of season 3, was serialized to the core. It was a chase with no end in sight and no real easement of the constant tension and peril. Additionally when you have such a strong group of characters, it's hard to lose interest in any given episode if it is so and so centric because I found myself invested in almost every character.

As for whether this is the best way to watch them, I don't really know if there is an all encompassing answer for that. I think as you said, in a lot of cases it depends show by show. As I mentioned earlier, with some shows, I think binging really enhances the experience, others I'm not so sure about. I recently plowed through Deadwood in less than two weeks. And while my enthusiasm for the show held throughout, I do think I missed out on certain nuances, did not fully appreciate the themes of individual episodes and lessened the experience by allowing entire seasons to blend together, when one of the more interesting aspects of the show, at least from a standard of format, is that each episode tells the story of a single day in the Deadwood Camp.

I think for me, one of the greatest casualties of binging just might be the enjoyment of the episode as an individual entity and an even further obscuring of the artists who bring the better episodes of a television series to life. Television is a medium where individual writers, directors, and cinematographers rarely receive the sort of recognition they are due, and I think binging compounds the issue, because episodes start to blend together and its harder to look back and appreciate individual episodes as being great. Do find this to be a problem? And as I mentioned earlier how do you handle "catching up" with a show?


Michael

Oh, if it were only so easy to just say "I'll compare the pros and cons on binging on this show." I was watching Battlestar Galactica when I was writing my senior thesis. I should have spent my time reading up on my topic. I should have spent my time writing and rewriting. I spent a lot more time worried about how Starbuck would get out of some scrape. When I handed it in I took my mind off it by watching the final season. I probably just have particularly poor self-control, but those most addictive shows have a way of overriding any rational approach to watching.

Going back to a regular schedule after binging must be difficult. I watched all 4 seasons of Breaking Bad within about a month. The day I finished the last episode available to me happened to be the same day season 4 ended. I was able to watch it live for the first time. And after that, it was over, and the regular feed of Walter White was suddenly cut off. Breaking Bad is going to be a completely different show for me next season. It is going to be slow, deliberate and probably more effective. I don't know if I'll be able to stand it. Deadwood is such an interesting example for me. I'm willing to say it's one of my favorite television shows, even though I haven't seen the whole series. I received the box set for my birthday more than 7 months ago, and I've been making my way through it extremely slowly. I like it a lot more this way. Perhaps it's the exception - if there is anything worth considering and marveling on television, it's Milch's talent for dialogue. But I feel like it's slowly unraveling, it's lackadaisical pace that matches the simmering tensions in the city.

In a way, the new propensity for television binging is an inverse for the new model of music consumption. Too much electronic ink has been spilt on the death of the album, but it might be interesting to compare why people are now so content to download their favorite single while disliking having to wait a week for their favorite TV show. Besides the obvious - no one is hanging on the edge of their seat waiting for the new plot points on your average album - both are symptoms of a growing impatience for getting to the bits we really want to enjoy. And rather than marvelling at the inner working of a single episode - whether it be noticeably good cinematography or surprising direction - or proper construction of a whole album, we're only getting a limited amount of what we otherwise might be appreciating.


Chris

As someone who is way behind the times on contemporary music consumption, I'm not sure if I'm the best suited to weigh in on this but I'll give it the old college try. I suppose I fall into the model of downloading singles I like vs. entire albums. Part of this is because it's rare that I find an album that I can listen too all the way through, I mostly listen to music when I'm driving, and because of this I'm reluctant to pay full price for an album I haven't heard vs. a single or two which are far less expensive and there's a greater chance I've already been exposed and know what I'm getting (though Youtube and Spotify are changing how I consume music by allowing me to test albums before I buy). Now I'm pretty sure I'm the exception rather than the rule when it comes to buying music but maybe I'm not alone in this mentality.

Now, I'm gonna reveal how tragically uncool I am. Back during the summer I bought Foster the People's single "Pumped Up Kicks" off the album Torches. I loved the song and it became a regular on my play lists. Then one day, a few months later I listened to the full album on Spotify. Equally enamored I purchased the whole thing but couldn't help noticing that the single which had caused my initial enthusiasm for the band was not at all indicative of the tone and style of the album as a whole. I think this is pretty common, as most bands want to put their most catchy foot forward.

Now I think TV is different in that most shows, the ones that employ kind of serialized, addictive storytelling that we've been talking about, are impossible to consume as singles. Aside from the pilot and perhaps the odd standalone exception here and there (maybe Flight of the Phoenix from BSG but even that I have my doubts about) I can't really hand a single episode to an uninitiated friend and expect them to fully enjoy it or be hooked or at the very least just not be completely lost. The art of the single episode can only be appreciated in the context of the greater whole. Perhaps there's a happy medium to be found in binging at a pace that still gives us the more substantial dose of the show that we crave while still appreciating the nuance and art of each single episode.

It's interesting that you bring up comparisons to music consumption, (and I realize I am now dangerously close to running the risk of being labeled as "that comics guy") but our discussion on binging vs. single episode consumption and going back and forth made me think of a phenomenon prominent in the last decade or so of the comics industry called "writing for the trade." Basically, in the last ten years while the sales of single issues of comics that you could only buy in specialty stores was steadily declining, the sale of trade paper back collections of a full story of the same comics that you could buy at pretty much any book distributor was steadily increasing. This caused publishers to ask writers to keep this phenomenon in mind, and craft stories that were five to six issues in length (the perfect size for collection in a satisfyingly long, moderately priced trade).

But while this approach worked to bolster the trade market, readers of the monthly books did not like the new decompressed storytelling style and felt that their reading experience was being shortchanged at the expense of catering to the readers who preferred to wait for the trade. Do you think that there is any potential of something similar happening in the world of television now that binging is becoming more and more common? That writers might approach a show specifically with a binge audience in mind, creating a show almost impenetrable to the casual viewer or so decompressed that the weekly experience is not at all satisfying? Or is TV still so dependent on the traditional viewer that this is entirely unlikely?


Michael

My examples of the consumption of singles was a little too simplistic, I admit. The single has been the almighty weapon of record producers and radio programmers since music has been popular. I'm sure Viking Skalds got tired of being asked to sing their most popular hits to groups of drunken raiders (they want to recite their new epic verse, obviously, but nobody wants to hear them). And I wish I could join in any discussion of comics, but alas, my knowledge of the medium is comparable to my knowledge of advanced molecular chemistry in its minisculity.

But you do make a good point about commercial implications for binging. When HBO aired The Pacific, it didn't get great ratings - certainly not ratings that justified the most expensive miniseries to ever air on television. HBO executives seemed to not really care, and they had a point. Because when Father's Day rolls around this year, they're going to sell a lot of DVD sets. And they might even be able to lease the series out to the History Channel, who often like to air marathons of it's predecessor during Veterans' Day and other patriotic days of remembrance. HBO has placed a very large wager on bingers.

The birth of the "Complete DVD Series" and Netflix and Hulu have totally changed the way that shows are marketed but not necessarily how they are created. If we accept that the most binge-worthy shows are those with propulsive, intricate plot lines (and I think we are in agreement on this) those same shows are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to reruns and syndication. Imagine if Hulu had only three episodes of Battlestar Galactica from the middle of the second season. There would be almost no reason to watch them for newcomers, who wouldn't understand a damn thing they were talking about. You might be able to draw in people who have seen it before, but they would be angered that you didn't have more episodes to watch. Television like this is in a severely mismatched fight with your average sitcom or procedural, which can offer a satisfying self-contained story within an hour's time. The only option for these other shows is to offer them in a format ideal for binging.

Let's take a look of shows that have caught a huge break on the DVD market. Family Guy is perhaps the most famous example, along with Futurama, of shows that have earned their way back onto the airwaves through DVD sales. Shows like Firefly and Freaks and Geeks have managed to make money for their creators long after they flopped. And shows like Arrested Development succeed because there's so much to parse through. These shows and other of the most successful shows on DVD are generally smarter and different from anything else on TV. They are directly aimed at the people who want to watch episode after episode because those people are the ones who are going to keep the cash-flow going even after the executives throw good shows on the street. In an ideal world, which may be coming sooner rather than later, executives might realize that giving creatives a season to do something that might not find a wide audience might eventually find a lucrative audience elsewhere. Bingers and nerds, specifically. I don't doubt for a second that's why NBC hasn't cut Community. There's a vocal fan base who are willing to buy DVDs, watch episodes online over and over, and generally be the kind of dedicated customers that advertisers jerk off thinking about.

I went from distrusting binging to making an argument that it could save television. I feel woozy and I just downloaded season 2 of Justified. See you all in eight hours.


Chris

Fair enough, I've been dying to dive into Justified myself. Given that this has gone on for awhile let me just say that it would be interesting to see if there could be a model that exists where the Bingers themselves are targeted primarily with no concern at all for the traditional viewer. I think the best example of this and something to watch if such a model could succeed would be the fourth season of Arrested Development set to air on Netflix. If the show is as successful as I hope it will be, maybe we'll see more shows resurrected in DVD or online streaming form (fingers crossed for Terriers).

Now I'm gonna go use HBOGo to pick off some series in its second season. Have a good weekend folks.


Tags:
comments powered by Disqus