Look, I have been a staunch defender of and believer in the binge watch method since I was a teenager watching mega rerun blocks of cable series on Saturday afternoons. In fact, it’s possible that I never watched live TV (or an episode when it premiered) until some time after college. My greatest TV joy was seeing a block of Law & Order or Real World episodes running ad infinitum. I binge watched TV shows on DVD, and later, via Netflix (on DVD!) By the time Netflix streaming arrived, I was primed to consume a season in two or three sittings, thrilled by the lack of commercials and being able to stop and start on my own schedule.
For a long time, I would have described this as ideal. But the reality now has become more of a be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario exacerbated by Peak TV. Again, it’s a burden felt more acutely by someone whose job it is to stay on top of this never-ending carousel of seasons that may premiere all at once. And yet, part of my waning enjoyment of bingeing is a general exhaustion tied in part to the artificial constraints we’ve created around Netflix’s binge-and-purge model. A show debuts on a Friday, and by Monday it’s old news (and spoilers abound). And more often than not, it’s then completely forgotten about.
Even for those who aren’t trying to keep up with popular TV shows (whose seasons are released at all once) in real time, the on demand viewing experience has also destroyed watercooler culture. There were many, myself included, who suggested Game of Thrones might be the last watercooler series, the last show that was such a juggernaut that people actually felt compelled to watch it live so they could discuss it the next day. More often, a new show will premiere that I’ll recommend to a friend, and sixth months or a year (or more) later they’ll say “oh I just started [that show] and loved [these moments].” By then, the show has faded from my memory enough that I can’t really recall the specifics, and therefore can’t discuss much beyond “cool! Glad you’re enjoying it!” It occasionally happens in reverse, too, when I catch up on an older show that I can’t wait to talk about, only to find that the relevant discourse disappeared long ago.
One of the reasons I first got into writing TV criticism was because I was reading so much of it. In the late-aughts to early 2010s, I was binge watching a lot of TV that had been off the air for some time, and desperate to discuss it in-depth. This is when recap culture had just started to exist and flourish, because a good recap was less about “this is what happened, then this happened” (which does have its place), and more about analyzing a show on a weekly basis. It was a watercooler conversation in print; one-sided (unless you waded into the comments, which I would strongly urge you never to do), but still helpful in engaging with a series on a deeper level, especially once it was out of regular conversation. Showrunners really hated recaps, because it didn’t take into account to overall season’s stories. Because, of course, this was also at a time when TV was really producing some excellent all-time series that were worthy of studying and critiquing, yet also one where writers were often looked at a 10-episode season as a “visual novel” or, at worst, the dreaded “10 hour movie.” The art of the episode was already on its way out.
With the rise of binge culture, TV recaps started to die away. They still exist here and there, but the idea of recapping every show has long since passed. Part of that is because individual episodes don’t hold much meaning when you watch four or five at a time—and increasingly they aren’t meant to (in the preferred Netflix model, each episode ends on a cliffhanger to get you to start the next one; generally it all blurs together). But ultimately, spoilerphobia killed just about any kind of public discourse about any show. The spoiler rule should be that once a show has premiered, it can’t be spoiled. But there was to be no satisfaction on the nuances of what that means practically, and really, it was the canary in the coal mine that we just aren’t watching TV at the same time anymore. There is no cultural conversation to be had. I’m not immune to being ridiculous about it either; I started watching Cheers on Netflix, and mentioned to someone that I was already “spoiled” over the fact that Kirstie Alley eventually replaces Shelley Long. What spoiled me? I don’t know, probably just being alive when it happened 30 years ago.
But only recently, with the temporary pause of Peak TV (because of pandemic production shutdowns), have I come to truly appreciate the format that TV was founded upon: the weekly episode. It’s not even that episodes of shows I’ve watched weekly recently (like The Alienist or Dispatches from Elsewhere) were particularly distinct week to week, but it was that—in the midst of a lockdown—I had something fresh to look forward to. It’s a small comfort to be sure, but being able to anticipate a new installment of something at a certain time and on a certain day has meant a lot more to me in the last few months than ever before. I even experienced one of the rarest current TV joys: discussing a finale episode (Snowpiecer, in fact) with a co-worker the day after it aired. (“Did you see—??”)
Some cable and network broadcasters have experimented with shifting to more of a binge model for releasing their shows, including airing episodes of a season on subsequent nights, airing episodes two at a time, or even making the whole season available On Demand or via an app the day the first episode premieres on traditional cable. None of these have really worked to engage viewers in the same way streaming services do, and it certainly hasn’t created any urgency to watch live (so many shows end up getting a robust second life on Netflix versus airing OTA or on cable, for better or worse). Traditional weekly release (which some streamers like Hulu play around with from time to time) still feels like it’s swimming fruitlessly against a rip tide of binge. Because the turnover for binge series is so high, and the room that streaming services have to air these series is as infinite as their server space, this has all fed into an overwhelming glut of television that we can’t meaningfully or corporately engage with anymore.
As productions start to tentatively return and TV networks will no doubt start releasing an ungodly amount of shows again soon, consider basking in the dying art of the weekly episode, also known as appointment television. For something I couldn’t wait to get rid of, I now admit we didn’t give it a fair shake. Engaging in TV alone and at one’s own pace can be satisfying, but it’s still better as anticipated and shared. As C.S. Lewis once said, “friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, ‘Oh, you too? I thought I was the only one.’” We may be watching TV at different times and in different ways, but we’re all still watching. We just have to figure out how to do it together again.
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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