How Re-Watch Podcasts Bring the Fight to Binge Culture

TV Features Buffy the Vampire Slayer
How Re-Watch Podcasts Bring the Fight to Binge Culture

“It’s like a listening guide to go along with the episode—like having a little book club.”

“Yes! A book club where only two of its members can actually speak, which for me is the best kind of book club.” — Hrishikesh Hirway and Josh Malina, The West Wing Weekly

The Season Four finale of one of the best television shows in history airs on May 1, at which point it will enter a summer hiatus. It won’t return again for its fifth season until September 18—September 18! I truly don’t know how I’m going to cope.

A series going on a three-month hiatus is so common that I shouldn’t need to write a whole column to work through my despair, except for one thing. The series in question is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seminal teen/action/fantasy/friendship/femme-empowerment drama, premiered in 1997. In real time, its Season Four finale (“Restless”) aired on May 23, 2000, and its Season Five Premiere (“Buffy vs. Dracula”) aired three months later, on September 26. Its entire seven-season run is currently available streaming on both Hulu and, weirdly enough, Facebook Watch. There is, quite literally, nothing stopping me from queuing up “Buffy vs. Dracula” this very moment.

Stil, I won’t be hitting the Play button until 11 p.m. on September 17, just in time for the “Buffy vs. Dracula” episode of Jenny Owen Youngs and Kristen Russo’s Buffy rewatch podcast, Buffering the Vampire Slayer, to have its scheduled midnight premiere.

Listen through the 50-second mark to catch Jenny’s cleverly allusive musical play on Nerf Herder’s original Buffy theme.

If you’ve heard of podcasts (this reads like a joke, but we’ve all got grandparents!), then you know about rewatch podcasts. Maybe you’ve spent happy hours reliving an honorable presidency with Josh Malina and Hrishikesh Hirway on The West Wing Weekly. Maybe Gilmore Guys’ Demi Adejuyigbe and Kevin T. Porter have helped you not feel so lonely (and so-o co-old). Maybe you’re such a Joanna Robinson stan that you keep up with her not one, not two, but three Game of Thrones joints. Whatever your pop culture poison of choice, there is almost certainly a podcast (or three, or three hundred) that’s brought together a couple friends—one, typically, an impassioned expert, the other, just as typically, a wide-eyed newbie—to rewatch it.

It doesn’t take much critical thinking to figure out why this might be: Podcasting is a uniquely accessible art form, its bar to entry so low that anyone with a smartphone can get their deepest thoughts to your ears with minimal effort. (As for what this might say about our culture’s current priorities, well, go ahead and meditate on this bête noire of a conclusion reached by a Lifehacker writer who used his phone to finally get a short, scrappy podcast off the ground: “It’s not perfect, but it exists, which is infinitely better.” I mean!) Content-wise, the bar to entry for having opinions about popular television is equally low—and often lower. Take the two together, and you’ll realize it’s a miracle we’re not drowning in even more rewatch podcast content than already exists.

That said, there’s more to the boom than the low bar to entry. It’s not just a mountain of amateurs recording rewatch discussions with friends in their living rooms, although those have their charms—it’s professionals. Professional critics (Robinson, Russo), professional actors (Malina, Tricia Helfer on Battlestar Galacticast, Marc Evan Jackson on The Good Place: The Podcast), professional comedians (Adejuyigbe, Porter), professional musicians (Hirway, Owen Youngs). It’s talented creatives, experts at comic timing, clever commentary, and polished sound editing, whose support from ad revenue/Patreon/associated professional podcast networks gives them enough resources not only to turn out perfect bites of earbound entertainment, but also to build entire rewatch brands. My beloved Buffering did this when they reached Angel’s departure for his own series at the end of Buffy’s third season, bringing Sicker, Sadder World hosts Brittany Ashley and Laura Zak into the queer-lensed family fold with Angel on Top, which airs biweekly, in tandem with Buffering. The Good Place: The Podcast tested the waters with a two-part Brooklyn Nine-Nine special following the most recent season finale of The Good Place. And it’s hard to beat Gilmore Guys for rewatch-adjacent spinoffs: Bunhead Bros (Demi and Kevin watch Bunheads), Good Christian Fun (Kevin and Caroline Ely watch and discuss “the weird and hilarious world of faith-based entertainment”), Punch Up the Jam (Demi and Miel Bredouw re-listen to, discuss, and comically punch up hit songs), and Maisel Goys (Kevin and stand-up comedian Alice Wetterlund live-watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). My dudes! That is so much.

It isn’t just the professional-level execution of these podcasts that have made them successful, though. It’s the nature of television, itself. As television critic Alison Herman recently argued in her excellent Ringer piece, “Is a TV Show Good If No One Talks About It?”, discussion is an integral part of the modern television-watching experience. Using CBS All Access’ critically beloved, barely watched original series The Good Fight as her point of reference, Herman is grappling with issues of limited accessibility and the fraught interplay between commerce and art more than she is finding community through nostalgia. (Her central question: “If a group of people make an excellent TV show and no one can watch it, does it really exist?”) But the thrust of her argument works as well for decoding the success of rewatch podcasts as it does for decrying The Good Fight’s paywalled topical storytelling. Yes, talking about TV is low-hanging fruit, but it’s also the very stuff of modern social connection. When we identify with the stories and the characters TV gives us, we want to find others who identify with them, too. What TV shows we like or don’t like don’t define us, but talking about them absolutely sparks joy. And finding people who feel the same spark as you? [Galaxy brain.jpg]

This spark of shared identity is what has made Buffering the Vampire Slayer, especially, such a booming success. (Well, shared identity, and the original jingles and episode-specific songs composed by Owen Youngs.) Hosted by two queer women, it gives listeners a chance to rewatch Buffy through a specifically feminist, queer-friendly lens. Buffy and Angel are both extremely queer-coded, but you don’t have to identify as queer or female to reap the rewards of this perspective. Still, for those in the listening audience who do identify as one or both, Buffering feels like a real family. Nevermind feels like—it is a real family, tangibly, physically real, as has been proven many times over in sold-out live tapings, immensely popular Facebook-streamed live-watches, and the two official Buffy Proms held first in Los Angeles (in 2018) and then in New York (in 2019). Buffering listeners— many of them Patreon patrons, which opens access to a very active closed Facebook group— feel seen and loved by the rest of the Buffering community to an extent that few TV fandoms have made possible before.

The cultural value of rewatch podcasts doesn’t stop at community, though. Professional or amateur, one of the most critically important things that rewatch podcasts do is give listeners permission to not binge. Look: I love the current wealth of exceptional TV as much as the next critic, but the mountain of content that has to be climbed to find the sharpest gems, plus the pressure of having to get through eight, 10, or 13 episodes at once to join perhaps a single day of online discussion, is exhausting. “There was definitely a twang of why bother? while I was writing last week, just as there is every week. Why bother, and Jesus Christ, why am I not faster?” writes Soraya Roberts, in a potent Longreads essay on pop culture “flooding” drowning us not just in content, but in sameness. In the face of such a flood, the idea of getting to watch just one episode? at a time?? and then sit listening to smart and funny people talk (and sing!) about it, at my leisure??? Literally, it’s a gift.

Which, in the end, is why I won’t be watching any Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel between May 1 and September 17. I joke that I won’t be able to cope without it, but that three month long summer hiatus? It’s also a gift, and I’m looking forward to it as much as I am the two-part Buffering podcast about “Restless” coming April 24 and May 1. And if you’re thinking about catching up before September? Well, that hiatus is a gift for you, too. It’s not quite enough time to watch just one episode of Buffy weekly and still catch up to Season Five of Buffering (although it is plenty of time to catch up on Angel Season One for Angel on Top). But it’s a start.

In the meantime, I’ll be here, waiting for Buffy to meet Dracula.

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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