I recently had an engaging conversation with a TV critic of a major newspaper. We spoke of the television industry, ratings, the greatest shows of the past decade and a whole slew of other topics. But one thing he said caught my attention: he’s not a fan of “binge watching” shows, wherein one sits down for a number of episodes in a short span of time. I was thrown off — watching TV for hours on end happens to be a major hobby of mine (what else are Saturday afternoons for?) However, his surprising admission got me thinking: Contrary to how it may feel as a procrastinating college student, binge TV might not actually be the greatest invention of all time, both for the viewer and for the industry.
What I’ve realized is that a large part of what I love about television is the deliberate sense of time that passes with it. Though originally wrought from necessity, the airing of television shows on a weekly basis allows for a serial nature that has truly been capitalized on only in the last ten years with shows like Lost or The West Wing. While an inconvenience to some, it allows for a literal passing of time, something not easily replicated in theater or film.
Every season, the characters become older and more mature as the actors do the same. With a show like How I Met Your Mother, for instance, now on its 8th season, Neil Patrick Harris and Jason Siegel who look like babies in the pilot, have become characters that are infinitely wiser and more grown-up (well, as grown-up as they can be). Television can give us growth in a way no other media can — by actually showing it to us as it happens. If you watch any good modern show (save for animated ones), you’ll see an incredibly flawed character at the start who by the end has outgrown those flaws or learned to succeed despite them. And if you do it right, sticking with a show from the beginning to the end, you as the viewer can do the same.
For me, Scrubs was that show. I started watching as a tiny little middle schooler and by the end I was a high school senior applying to college. Seven years had gone by both in my life and in the lives of the characters. Together we had gone through hardship, disappointment, regret, death, and triumph, and grown because of it all. The viewer that goes back now and watches Scrubs in a two-week binge completely forgoes the magic of that experience that only comes with time.
Netflix, the enabler of our binges for the last couple of years, has reaped tremendous profit from tremendously popular shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. In the week leading up to the premiere of their original series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, Netflix stocks skyrocketed by almost 80%. For those of you living under a rock, every episode of the first season was placed online at once, which meant that many of us were forced to live under a rock for the weekend until we finished it (because that’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Otherwise we find spoilers everywhere!).
However, I question both the purpose and intelligence of such an all-in approach. Are we as a society so obsessed with instant gratification that we don’t even consider the idea of waiting anymore?
I’ve noticed that nobody talks about House of Cards now. Why? Well, quite simply, because it started and before we knew it, it was over. By giving it to us all at once, Netflix completely cut out the sense of a weekly buzz that builds up for a show! And now, two months later, it shows. Their stock has plateaued since its spike. Would it have helped for them to have people talking about their original show on a weekly basis? Well, if House of Cards were airing in a traditional format, its finale wouldn’t be until the end of April, and there would have been a major plot twist airing on Friday the 12th that would have everyone talking. But I guess we’ll never know, because we all watched it on a two-day binge.
The fact of the matter is that binge watching is a great way to catch up on a show (I never would’ve been able to be watching the season’s premiere of Mad Men, if not for it). But it’s no substitution for viewing on a weekly basis. You miss out on so much by taking the shortcut. You lose the anxiety of waiting on the edge of your seat for seven days. You lose your weekly discussion and theorizing about next week’s episode that comes with a show like Game of Thrones. Most importantly, though, you lose out on growing (or growing up) with the characters as time goes by. I’m not saying not to binge watch – sometimes it’s the only option – I’m just saying, don’t let it become a substitute for watching a show on a week-to-week basis. Don’t use Netflix as an excuse to cut out live TV (or even Hulu), because if you do, you deprive yourself of one of the greatest things that TV has to offer: Growth.