In the past few years, there has been a major shift in the way people watch television shows. Rather than watching an episode of a show and moving on, people now put on Netflix and watch entire seasons at a time, glued to the couch for twelve continuous hours. We're all guilty of it.
For sitcoms where your mind isn't truly engaged, this isn't a big deal. I've spent weekends unwinding by plowing through all of Scrubs or Boy Meets World like televised junk food while my mind sat idle. Hour-long prime-time shows typically fall into the same group. As much as I loved it, Xena isn't going to make me think too hard: I'll laugh at the absurdity, cheer for Xena and Gabrielle, and fall in love with Callisto so hard that I check Hudson Leike's IMDB page again.leike You know: the usual.
Then, there are the serials. These are the shows require you to have watched from the beginning to get the full effect. Breaking Bad and Dexter fall into the category. Walter White is one of the greatest characters ever written, but you aren't going to understand why unless you watch all of Breaking Bad. Jumping in half-way through the series, you may think, "This guy is a cool villain and all, but I don't get all the hype." You have to see the complete transformation of the tragic doormat cum supervillan to truly appreciate him. The same goes for Skylar changing from cold and emotionless to someone who we all cheered and feared for.
Breaking Bad had great cliffhangers that kept people talking all week until each Sunday night when we'd all pile around the TV to see what Walt and Jesse were going to do. Now that the show has ended, we are already clicking "Start next episode," ignoring that badly-needed bathroom break that we've been putting off for two episodes already. "This looks like a slow point," we think while walking to the bathroom. BOOM! CRASH! More gunfire! We rush into the living room as fast as we can. "What did I miss!?" we frenetically cry out to the rest of room, fly unzipped and forgotten.
There is something in this marathoning that is lost that I'm going to call "communal speculation," although a better term for it probably already exists. When Breaking Bad, Dexter, and True Detectivedetective were still airing, people talked about them nearly every day at work.
- Can you believe what Heisenburg did?
- Do you think Dexter is going to kill Miguel?
- Here's my theory on who the Yellow King really is...
When in the break room, these are conversations that, if you've seen the show, anybody can join in. They let people who would otherwise never meet talk together and possibly form a friendship. It's the "talking around the water cooler" that happens naturally and works so well for teamwork and moral. Some corporations even try (and fail) to force it to happen inorganically because it's something that works so well.
When watching with a group or friends, a similar thing occurs. Conversations about the plot, symbolism, and predictions occur while changing the DVD to the next one in the series. I know that I've personally held a DVD for over half an hour, talking without quite ever getting to the DVD player until the conversation has come to a halt. The natural breaking point allowed there to be a few minutes of downtime to debate, go to the bathroom, get another drink, or make more popcorn or snacks, possibly just getting lunch while still talking about the show.
While Netflix and other streaming services have made media so much easier to watch, the DVD communal speculation is gone. There are two points that can occur, possibly hours apart, when I see conversation happen:
- Someone's bladder just can't take it anymore, and the stream is paused.
- The plot is so complex/contrived/murky that someone is completely lost and asks what is happening.
Otherwise, the afternoon just flashes by in silence, and everyone may as well have watched everything separately.
There is a caveat to this: if everybody has already watched the series, then they may talk to each other during the show, meaning that there is actually more interaction.
"But Billy," you say, "you're forgetting about Netflix originals!"
House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are huge. There's no denying their popularity. They both have interesting, well-written plots and fleshed-out characters. However, the break room conversations are very different when talking about these shows.
"Holy shit! Did you see House of Cards?"
"Wait!" a coworker replies, covering her ears with her hands. "I haven't finished it yet!"
A day or two later, they will talk about the season, within two weeks they will have moved on to a different discussion altogether.
This is the problem: unlike other shows where they are discussed episode by episode, House of Cards and the others are discussed season by season. This is a fundamental difference that allows for much less communal speculation. People will remember liking the political intrigue of House of Cards, but it won't have the same cultural impact of, say, Homeland.
True Detective is interesting, but it loses a lot of its impact when you give no time between the episodes to ponder its mysteries. When marathoned, True Detective changes from a well-paced, character-driven mystery serial to a drawn-out detective flick. I'd argue that American Horror Story would suffer similarly.
Of course, it's not the fault of the writing, editing, etc. They were designed for one medium but viewed as another.
This brings me to a final type of "show" called Black Mirror.netflix I've just watched the first season, and I think the show is brilliant. Each episode is a self-contained short with no attachment to any other episodes. It's the same idea as thirty to sixty minute films that can be found on YouTube. What separates _Black Mirror from all the other shows I've written is each episode is basically a miniature movie with strong symbolism and strong themes that attempts to portray a powerful statement.
We watched the first season as a marathon, not knowing how heavy the material is. It's the kind of show that, if not stopped and pondered, is wasted. Black Mirror says something about modern society as a whole through the story of an individual, relatible character. As such, the episode should inspire self-reflection and thoughts of living in our current age, surrounded by monitors, TVs, and cell phone screens, the eponymous black mirrors. If done as a novel or a play decades ago, we'd be reading it in school alongside Fahrenheit 451 or Death of a Salesman. I guess what I'm trying to say is that each episode of Black Mirror is more like a work of art in a collection/season that should be experienced, not like a bag of potato chips to be devoured mindlessly.
Black Mirror will gain a lot of exposure and production value through Netflix, but the built-in idea of marathoning them all because they're on Netflix may hold it back from being appreciated in a way that I think it deserves. Luckily, or perhaps strategically, each season only contains three episodes. Maybe that will help.
Ultimately, as people watch more via streaming services or queue entire seasons on their DVRs, marathoning is becoming the new method for watching TV. I didn't touch on how this also applies to movie series, but some of the same points apply. The Kindle and eBooks are causing a similar effect in literature. You can plow through an entire thirteen-book series in a weekend, but it won't hit you the same way as if you read the books individually and thought about each.
The consuming of media is only part of its enjoyment. The discussion and introspection that comes with inherent sharing of ideas that comes with media is a major part of the experience. Marathoning episode-to-episode, season-to-season, and show-to-show hinders all aspects of the experience but the consumption itself.
After all, the quantity doesn't matter. If you do nothing but read a thousand books in January, and you can't remember what happened in them by February, then all you've really done is waste your January.
leike If there's ever a movie where the villains are a duo of psychopaths played by John Lithgow and Hudson Leike, I'd pre-order it in every format available before it ever debuted. Maybe add some Hollow Point Donald Sutherland for some comic relief.
detective I'm refering to season one of True Detective. As of writing this, a second season has been announced, but its contents are all rumors and speculation.
netflix When I wrote this, I had thought Black Mirror was a Netflix original series. It's not, but Netflix is the only way we can watch it in the U.S.