TV Series: Don’t Watch It All At Once!

Commenting on the Critics with Simon Columb

House of Cards

Dawn C. Chmielewski writes on February 1st, 2013 (the first day of release for House of Cards) about the change in viewing habits for TV:

House of Cards is sparking thousands of mentions every hour, according to analysis by social media research firm Fizziology. About 62% of the remarks are positive, with negative conversation virtually non-existent. Most of those expressing mixed views are saying they don’t have time to watch the series. ‘This indicates that if they can’t watch it all at once, they may not watch it until they have time to consume more than one or two episodes at a time,’ Fizziology President Ben Carlson said. ‘This might mean that people feel pressured to binge-watch the series.’

Read the full article here.

The nature of “binge-watching” stems back to the first release of TV series on DVD. Back in the late 90s, suddenly, the home entertainment success of shows such as The West Wing and The Sopranos encouraged a wave of releases that had never seen the light of day since their own TV screening. Personally, we capitalised on complete box-sets of Dawson’s Creek, The Simpsons and The Fast Show – series I thoroughly enjoyed but didn’t manage to see every episode when it originally aired.

The release of House of Cards is an interesting one because not only does it subvert the usual week-on-week release pattern but it is also only digitally available through an exclusive pay-monthly site. This is also supported by immediate reactions on social-networking sites that have, in turn, stimulated further conversation and advertised the programme many more times. We are a long way from watching Friends at 9pm on Channel 4 on a Friday night – “fingers crossed its a double-bill this week!”

But only recently, I have noticed a change in the type of TV series we are getting – and that those who are more patient can generally figure out which series are worth watching. It is mentioned in the article that many ‘binge-watched’ 24 – and indeed, I was one of them. Buying a box-set, my partner and I would watch the entire 24-episode run within two weeks. We would happily watch “a whole disc” (4 episodes totalling 160 mins) in an evening. But I won’t watch it again – and comparisons between Homeland and 24 have ensured that I won’t watch the former either. As I understand, Lost had a similar quality.

Mad Men

I enjoyed the rush and buzz from a regular 40-minute cliffhanger but after 8 seasons and an awful TV-movie – 24: Redemption – I realise that the short-lived guns and action world of Jack Bauer is nothing in comparison to the style of Mad Men and the brutal realism of The Pacific. But when I watched the latter two series, rarely would I watch more than two episodes in a night.

TV series with a profound sentiment, challenging the human moral compass and highlighting the contradictions in society, need time to digest. Recently I viewed The Pacific and, though played as a mini-series, each episode had a clear narrative that highlighted the multiple facets to the Pacific War. Indeed, tragic moments of a Japanese soldier crying out as Americans laugh and shoot single bullets to slowly kill him is powerful – and I don’t finish the episode desperate to know “what happens next”. If anything, with outstanding series, I want to hold back off the end of the series so that I always have a new episode to watch. The Wire, in a different manner, is supposed to be watched in quick succession but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who would regularly pause and discuss the events to ensure I knew exactly what was going on. These series force you to think – they don’t stimulate your senses purely according to action-beats and stylised-tension.

Flickering Myth writer Paul Risker feels that “If it is the intention of the writers of television shows to create an immersive narrative for the audience, binge-viewing over a shorter period does not undermine the audience’s immersion into the world of the show”. I would disagree, as an audience member who blasts through three series of Mad Men within a weekend are going to fail to pick up on the small nuances and subtle contextual references that constantly highlight how intelligent the show truly is (many who work in advertising themselves see direct references to the history of advertising). I fail to see how this can truly be respected and understood when you are simply ‘desperate’ to see what happens to Peggy.

It seems that House of Cards is a complicated, political drama – but it is too early to tell. Will House of Cards still be standing in a few months? Or will it be a short-lived hype that, in time, will be forgotten. As a programme almost sold to be binge-watched, maybe those intelligent elemenets will be forgotten for the sake of knowing ‘what happens next’. Binge-watching may fulfil a personal choice to crash through an entire series over a weekend – but it also means that the experience is short-lived. Quality stands the test of time – and if you can’t soak up the quality over a number of weeks, then maybe it is not quality at all.

Simon Columb

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  • Nice write up, as always; but your theory that binge-watching means people will miss the nuances seems a little off to me. I ONLY binge-watch (although never previously used that term). I have no interest in slowly pacing myself. I scoffed down The Pacific in two days, and will again soon. I watched all of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT in only a few days and found myself very highly attuned to all the

  • Simon

    If I am in an Art Gallery – I have a choice; I either speed around the gallery under the assumption that I can "get" them all… or I can spend my time choosing the piceces which interest me and, when looking at them, have a quick read of the notes to inform my judgement. Just because you binge-watch everything, doesn't mean it is all going in. My worry is that after watching a

  • I think we're just different. I am very forgetful. Sometimes after a pee-break I forget who characters are. I haven't watched any kind of show in a slow respectable manner in years. I don't watch shows week after week. Even when I really want to see something, like 'Sorkin's' The Newsroom. I think I watched the pilot out of curiosity, but then waited for the whole season

  • Simon

    Well, I think there is a balance. Religiously sticking to a week between each watch is ridiculous if you have access to it … but "pushing through" to the early hours, as if it is a challenge unto itself, is equally ludicrous. A couple a night is a comfortable amount to watch and digest.