Today, on my run, I listened to a great podcast episode by Stuff You Should Know. They were discussing crazy fan theories, and it was super entertaining. Did Will Smith die and Bel Air is the afterlife? Are Garfield strips the hallucinations of a dying cat? Are Spock and Sherlock Holmes distantly related? Not only are these theories hilarious, but they’re also testaments to the deep connection that can develop between audiences and art.
It also links to something I’ve been thinking about for a while: the pros and cons of the classic episode-per-week format vs. the current Netflix-style binge-watching culture. When it comes to the viewing experience, I would personally argue for the former.
Okay. I’ll grant that it’s certainly a step in the right direction that TV shows have started reducing their lengths down to 13 episodes a season. American shows like Prison Break, Lost and 24 were often too long-winded to stomach, with so much filler you wanted to scream at the TV. And sure, I’ll also concede that Netflix is a great platform for some fantastic art. In an age where film is dying a slow, ugly, public death, streaming sites are creating innovative and original TV content. Though I know nothing about the world of TV, it seems to an outsider that the Netflix format gives creators substantially greater scope and freedom to break new ground. These aren’t my issues. The problem, for me, is grounded in binge-culture.
Let me link this back to fan theorising. When I was a teenager, I was a huge fan of the show Fringe. From J. J. Abrams and co., the makers of Lost, Fringe was a sci-fi case-per-week where FBI agents investigated paranormal events. It’s been compared to The X Files, though I’ll confess to not having seen that particular show. But, between the ages of about 14 and 18, I became obsessed with Fringe. It was a fantastic show to get obsessed with too. With its three believable, well-acted main characters, heavy mythological and mysterious elements, and often gruesome scientific madness to boot, the show quickly developed a cult following (I’d probably count myself in their numbers), which saved them from being axed multiple times.
After watching the show each week, I would come into school or college and frantically discuss the revelations I had witnessed, with my peers. What did Walter mean when he said “There’s more than one of everything”, with that glint in his eye? What was the deal with the mysterious Observers, who, if you looked closely, appeared every episode, merely watching events unfold? Who was behind The Pattern, and what was their goal? These were questions that had me excitedly debating with my friends, and with every week’s viewing, a little bit more of the puzzle would be completed… but of course, the puzzle would simultaneously go from a 50-piece to a 100-piece with every added question.
Unlike its predecessor Lost, every now and then Fringe delivered on its promises. Towards the end of Season 2 and the beginning of Season 3, the mythology reached its height, and questions were answered. With the airing of these key episodes, the payoffs were huge. Theorising that had accumulated over the course of years was confirmed. And yet, fresh cliffhangers at the end of new episodes somehow became even more thrilling.
The key to my emotional investment in the show, and the character arcs and mythological reveals therein, lay in its patient one-episode-per-week format. By being forced to wait for next episodes, you can’t help but ponder the show during the week, and try to predict the direction it will head. The characters change in real-time, slowly, as the show progresses. You begin to know them, over the course of years, almost as if they are friends. Over time, you develop a connection. All of this enhances the viewing experience.
Now, let’s take binge-culture. Fringe was up on Netflix for a while, and I re-watched a couple of episodes, full of nostalgia. But I couldn’t help but think: if someone watched this show today, on Netflix, and they came across a key question in Season 1, they could potentially have it answered within a few hours. A key character could die, but they probably wouldn’t care too much, since they haven’t fostered a relationship with them over the course of years. Cliffhangers wouldn’t have as much as an effect, if you knew that you wouldn’t have to wait long find out what happens, in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
Binge-culture is kind of like finding how a magic trick is done. As soon as you see inside, the wonder is gone and you quickly move onto something else. I’ve experienced that with Netflix shows recently. My brother and I were talking about Bojack Horseman, a fantastic cartoon on Netflix that I strongly recommend watching, and he asked me if I liked a particular episode. After thinking carefully, I honestly couldn’t remember that particular plotline or character arc, despite having only finished the show that morning. In my experience, binged shows just don’t leave as much of an emotional imprint as the one-show-per-week format. Whereas Fringe, I can tell you everything about the show: all its season arcs, key plot points, mythology, character backstories. To me, that is a true viewing experience. Not the temporary “quick finish, now on to the next thing”.
Netflix isn’t to blame for the binge-culture they’ve created. The mechanism for making viewers stick around and binge their shows (“next episode starting automatically in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…” oh well, it’s on now…) is unavoidable in the arms race of the attention economy, where content providers are rushing to grab as much of your finite attentional resources as they can per day. The problem is with the economy, and is out of Netflix’s hands. If they actually give you more control over whether you want to watch the next episode or not, they fall behind in the arms race, and the race is a zero-sum game. So nothing is changing there.
Nevertheless, I believe this culture is damaging our viewing experiences, by making them shallower and more transient. When I think of a show like Breaking Bad, for example, that I watched very quickly in order to catch up before the season finale, I can’t help but feel a little regret. Breaking Bad was a masterpiece in television, a slow-burning character study full of foreshadowing and exciting plot arcs. If I had watched Breaking Bad like I had watched Fringe, with patience and restraint, how much more could I have got from the show? I would have cared more about important character deaths. I would have come to know the characters on a more personal level. Cliffhangers within and between seasons would have been even more hair raising. I certainly would have better appreciated Walter White’s slow progression, adding weight to the statement he makes at the start of the show: “Chemistry is the study of change.” In short, I would have enjoyed the experience much more in a one-episode-per-week format.
What are your thoughts on this? I’m not sure, but I think I might be in a minority with this. I know it’s a bit “back in my day” to be harking back to the old way of doing things. And don’t get me wrong, again, Netflix is a fantastic platform for television. We really are in the age of TV right now. I just wish that it was appreciated a bit better.