My roommates has been binging Supernatural for the past three weeks. There are about twelve seasons of the series about brothers hunting monsters on Netflix, and the other day I asked him what season he was on. He thought he was on season six. He was actually on season nine.
I myself recently had my own first experience binging an entire season of TV in a day a month or so ago. My sister and I binged all of season three of 12 Monkeys across thirteen hours and I honestly could only tell you a few important moments from it. It’s mostly a blur and I honestly have no idea how it ended off the top of my head.
Binging is bad. I’ll say it. It’s bad because it ultimately takes away the very point of episodic and serialized storytelling.
Consider the cliffhanger. A moment at the end of an episode, or season, designed to keep you on the edge of your seat until the next one. When that episode ends and you are left in the dark on what comes next, you’re left to mull over the implications. What’s in the hatch? Is Fred Andrews going to make it? Did Kevin Garvey just die? (I finished The Leftovers recently) That week, or those months, of wondering makes the moment that answers your questions that much more palpable. You’ve been waiting for this moment, whereas if you just barrel through that cliffhanger can it mean anything at all? That exasperation and wonder compacts itself into the 15 seconds before the next episode starts. It doesn’t have room enough to breath to create the same emotional response in the audience.
Then there’s the concept of the singular episode of television. TV series built to be binged, and I’m mostly referring to Netflix’s series here, may was well be giant length movies with natural pauses in them. Each episode will feel like the rest. But in weekly television, a series can take turns into different genres and formats to tell a singular story. There are more opportunities to experiment with the form, and that creates episodes that stand out from the rest. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, Avatar: The Last Airbender’s masterful recap via stage play episode, or just about any episode of Doctor Who’s ability to be a different beast than the rest in a season. Or, considering that’s where we started, take Supernatural. As a series they are mired in the dark, dangerous, and monstrous, but the episodes the fans remember are the ones where they turned the concept on its head. Sam and Dean are trapped in a sitcom, Sam and Dean find out imaginary friends are real, Sam and Dean travel to a world where they’re the actors starring in Supernatural the TV series! You lose that when you write TV with an eye toward binging. Episodes can still have their own flavor, but they can’t be too distinct from each other.
Most importantly, however, is the loss of the conversation around TV shows. Every major Netflix show, from Orange is the New Black and House of Cards to Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why hit big when they were released, prompting massive amounts of conversation online. But with everyone on different episodes, those conversations were difficult to parse without accidentally spoiling the season for some. The conversations were loud, but a week out from their release and they’ve died down. On the other hand there’s Game of Thrones, possibly the last great series people still gather around to watch live every week. The conversation is constant while it’s on the air for ten weeks (or less now) and then that conversation continues between seasons while its fans wonder what’s coming next. Shows that come out with 22 episodes a season every year keep up that conversation for months on end, and those conversations are what gets more people to try the show once it’s out.
Yes that wait can be unbearable sometimes, and you wish it could all just come at once so you don’t have to walk away from the show until you’re done with it. I know a lot of people who prefer to wait until a season is over until they jump in and watch the whole thing, and then wait for the next season to end to do the same. But that’s what gets TV shows cancelled. Two years ago my favorite new series was Limitless. Based on the movie of the same name, a New York City slacker takes NZT, a drug that amplifies his brainpower, and joins the FBI as a special asset. If you’ve seen the movie, this was not like that. Limitless the series was fun, with episodes that would break the mold and stand on their own like one episode length ode to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and an ongoing mystery that will remain unresolved. The audience wasn’t there, and Limitless was cancelled. Don’t worry though, it’s streaming on Netflix so you all have a chance to see what you missed.
Sorry, I’m still salty about that one. I will digress that binging can be good. Since Riverdale closed out its first season on the CW its gained a ton more fans through Netflix, but that only works if they tune in for the new episodes next season.This is the point of episodic and serialized storytelling. To create something that keeps fans engaged week in and week out, with moments that resonate outside of their episode, and episodes that stand out from the others in a season. That’s the reason why TV is the juggernaut it is today, arguably better at telling satisfying stories than film. Every time you binge, you chip away at TV’s ability to draw you in and resonate with you, to make their strongest moments shine. That’s why I’m asking you to please stop binge watching TV.
PS, since Netflix skips the “previously ons” my roommate has never seen one of Supernatural’s “The Road So Far…”, their very fun season encompassing recaps. That was one of the greatest pleasures for me when I stumbled upon the first one on my own Supernatural catch up, but he’ll never know it. If that’s not a flaw with the system I don’t know what is.