Early in the days of Netflix-by-mail (and late in the days of Blockbuster-by-mail), I was very into catching up on TV shows I had missed when they first aired: Deadwood, Twin Peaks, Lost (the first seasons), The Wire, and more. But as much as I enjoyed watching those series on my own, I yearned to have conversations about them. Unfortunately, they were no longer being discussed. Recappers, especially as they worked their way through legacy shows, thankfully provided that discourse for me; their pieces offered a second point of view that might align with my own or go against it, but either way it sharpened the way I thought critically about TV shows and enhanced my enjoyment knowing that someone else caught the joke or recognized that callback.
For awhile recaps proliferated (and I started writing them myself), fulfilling a desire viewers had to analyze their favorite series together. But with the way we consume TV now, that has waned. Much has been said about how this Peak TV and streaming era has destroyed watercooler culture around TV shows: because we can binge any one of over 500 scripted shows a year all at once whenever we want, it’s almost impossible now to find a series popular enough that it’s being talked about on an episodic basis. Game of Thrones was really the last of its kind for awhile, but recently—with mystery series in particular—we’re finally seeing a small but encouraging revival of theory culture.
There are some reading this who will remember the heyday of True Detective Season 1, rushing to Reddit to read intricate theories and pick apart Lovecraftian references. These forums on social media have continued to exist for plenty of things, particularly true crime, but less so for most television—until recently. WandaVision on Disney+ played into that guessing-game zeitgeist, where viewers theorized what TV era the show would pay homage to next, or what it meant when X character showed up or Y powers manifested. But a lot of that was still tied up with a more toxic superhero fan subculture that is obsessed with comic connections in ways that casual viewers aren’t, and who get disappointed (or extremely Angry Online) when things don’t play out as predicted.
But there is a side to theory culture that isn’t as toxic, and it came to us as a one-two gift from HBO and Freeform over the past few weeks: Mare of Easttown and Cruel Summer. Both are short mystery series that wanted viewers to theorize alongside them, although they did so in different ways. Mare is extremely character-driven, Cruel Summer is more about the plot twists. But both reignited a desire for appointment television in a way few others have managed. These are the only two shows where I’ve gotten texts, DMs, Reddit messages, and Slack chats about “Have you seen….?” “What did you think about….?” Cruel Summer is a series where I again rush to Reddit each week to read theories and laugh at memes about our collective obsession with the show’s storytelling. Before the finale of Mare, my boyfriend and I sat for over an hour hashing out our theories of who killed Erin, bringing up various minutia that bolstered or deflated our ideas. It’s honestly been a blast.
Peak TV has thinned out since the start of the pandemic and productions closed down, which may also have something to do with an increased chance of shows breaking through to the public consciousness. But I also think there has simply been a yearning for those conversations again. There are many of us who would have relished discussing Netflix’s Bridgerton or Shadow and Bone on a weekly basis with fellow fans instead of what actually happened: all the episodes dropped on a Friday and the cultural conversation was over by the following Monday. And because the episodes are all out at once, spoilers are a minefield; you may want to discuss the moment Daphne and the Duke had that first kiss, but you might not be able to remember which episode it was, or indeed, remember anything about what happened at all beyond the marquee moments that all passed by in a whirlwind of “Play Next.” But even Netflix has broken its “all episodes at once” model a few times, like when it aired The Great British Baking Show weekly, just after the UK release. It was great to sit down and anticipate, with ye olde feeling of “there’s a new episode today!” Granted, not every show requires super close attention to detail or is worth a weekly discussion, but it’s been a delight to have a few that are interesting enough to make the wait for the next week exciting—and whose fandoms are rife with theories and conversations meanwhile.
There’s an argument to be made that theory culture can diminish one’s enjoyment of a series (“what I guessed played out!”), and have already pushed some crime shows in particular to utilize increasingly unhinged plot devices to keep savvy viewers interested. But Mare is an argument against that—it was an emotionally difficult series, one where the central crime also often managed to feel secondary to the character drama that was unfolding. Cruel Summer is a successful example of a show that plays with format (two point of views, multiple timelines) to break up things up enough to keep viewers on their toes without feeling like it’s tying itself in knots to deliver on the unexpected. Importantly, neither are baldly manipulative in the way This Is Us always has been, or in the way Netflix structures its episodes to end on a sudden cliffhanger just to make sure you roll into the next one without stopping. But most of all, the community engagement around both series has made the experience of watching that much better.
In this new streaming frontier, release schedules for episodes are in complete disarray. Even within a single platform, some series are released weekly, others all at once, some two or three at a time each week, or two or three at a time to start and then once as week after that. Some cable networks have dabbled in marathons of new shows to mimic streaming, but that hasn’t proved popular, while some streaming services have gone weekly for shows that are too niche to sustain interest for that long. It’s a moving target, one that’s confusing for viewers and not necessarily doing favors for a lot of the shows, either. But while it gets figured out, we are—occasionally—still finding ways to watch things together. TV is usually seen a solitary pursuit, but there’s a community aspect to it that can’t be ignored, and might actually be the best way to gauge a show’s success moving forward. Crime shows are paving the way, but here’s hoping other dynamic series will soon follow.
And seriously, did you see that last episode of Cruel Summer? I had to rewind, but the first time they showed the windows I thought that maybe ….
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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