Sunday, January 5, 2014

Does Binge Watching Change How We Perceive A TV Show?

Warning: Breaking Bad Spoilers below.

Thanks to Netflix and similar services, "binge watching"--watching a bunch of episodes of a television show over a short period of time--has become increasingly common. I do it all the time--in fact, I'd consider it the norm. There's nothing quite as satisfying as sitting down on a slow Saturday afternoon and kicking out an entire season of, say, Dexter, Mad Men, or Parks and Recreation.

This, of course, is relatively new. You could do it before, provided you purchased the TV show, one season at a time, on DVD. Since this can get very costly very quick, it presumably happened much less. But now that Netflix exists--where, for about ten bucks a month, you could theoretically watch entire series in one sitting--it's become a lot easier--and, many say (including myself), preferable. And now that Netflix has started original programming, which is almost specifically designed for binge viewing--it seems like it is going to become the norm.

Still, one has to wonder--is the act of binge-viewing altering how the actual creative process works?

The reason I bring this up is because of Breaking Bad. I was late to the BB party; I watched the pilot last summer and it didn't really click. (Especially odd since many people specifically mention BB's pilot as being particularly engaging.) When the final season started I decided to try and catch up on it, so I started watching the entire series. I would spend every night watching 3-4 episodes at once. Unfortunately, I didn't get to go through the entire series before the finale, so I missed it.

Over the holidays, however, AMC had a Breaking Bad marathon, and I recorded them all. (The last half-season wasn't available on Netflix yet.) I then sat and watched the last 8 episodes in one day. While I enjoyed the ending, I could feel that my experience with the show was changed because I had binge-watched it.

Basically, on the last few episodes, nearly all of Walt's enemies are killed in some way. This includes Todd, Uncle Jack, and Lydia. (There's a bunch of other stuff, too, of course.) It's a fantastic chess-piece maneuvering by Walt, filled with all sorts of tension and resolutions. And yet, a part of me wasn't satisfied. It slowly dawned on me as to why: all of these characters had been introduced in the first half of the last season. Unlike the previous seasons with a main antagonist (especially Gus Fring), the anticipation of what Walt's enemies would do spanned multiple seasons--which, in real life, would have been years. Here, I had just met these characters not that long ago, and their resolution just didn't really click. I didn't care what happened to Lydia. I really didn't care what happened to Uncle Jack; he barely had any screen time up until the last three or four episodes. It was nice to see the revenge plot fulfilled, but I didn't have time to build up any resentment towards any of them.

Had I watched Breaking Bad in a real-time manner, this would probably be different. Lydia, for example, was first introduced in July 2012...and the final episode was September 29th, 2013. In real life, people had a year and a half to discuss her character, complain how they hated her, analyze her intentions, and so on. For me, it was about a month, if that--and had I truly binge-watched it, days. She was a blip in the 60-odd episodes of the series. 

I don't know if this is something that will be common or not. Maybe it was just with this one series; maybe everyone will get used to it and compensate accordingly. Presumably this would only be an issue with dramas; comedies rarely have anything so important that binge-watching would ruin it. Still, I wonder if this will change the way in which episodes are written.

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