With the feverishly anticipated release of the fourth season of Arrested Development, fans of the joke-a-second postmodern sitcom had two options: main-line all 15 new episodes over a day of inevitable laugher-induced bliss, or put life on hold to marathon re-watch the genre-bending series from beginning to end. The traditional notion of slowly pacing through the episodes was never a realistic option.
As a television addict, I naturally chose the second option: to ignore weekend ‘family time’ to watch the Bluths, my favourite fictional family, pathologically lie, cheat and steal from each other on the small screen. Despite ending up bleary-eyed and with a guilty conscience, after gorging on episode-after-episode without break, I realised binge-viewing has become quite possibly the finest way to enjoy television.
While the binge-viewing phenomenon has exploded in popularity in recent times, it is hardly a brand new trend. Ever since television made its way to DVD and the internet, watching in moderation has been tossed aside in favour of endless content readily available for seamless consumption. While Jeremy Wilson declares that the widespread change in viewing habits began with The Wire – a Shakespearean crime opus that worked gloriously over extended periods – it was 24’s pulsating political conspiracies and counter-terrorism intrigue that arguably initiated the manic couch sessions that thrive today.
However, by taking the extraordinary approach of releasing entire television seasons all at once, internet streaming media company Netflix has aggressively upped the ante on the binge: the ‘one-episode-a-week’ meal deal replaced by a spectacular ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet. The age-old television distribution model is in the process of being revolutionised for a new generation of addicts that neither have the time, nor the patience, to sit down at specific hours for their television fix.
Over the last year, there has been an incredible amount of discourse on the subject of the binge, varying from those protesting staunchly against it to others providing detailed instructions on how to do it successfully. In one of the more provocative articles, Jim Pagels condemns the act of binge-viewing, suggesting it does not ‘maintain the integrity of the art form’, audaciously providing his own ‘guidelines’ on the proper way to watch television shows.
What Pagels conspicuously overlooked when protesting against binge-viewing is the dramatic shift in television as a creative medium even over the last decade. As Game of Thrones executive producer, D.B. Weiss states, ‘serialized storytelling looms larger than it did in 2003.’ In particular, recent dramatic offerings, such as Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Homeland are all ‘hyper-serialised’ television shows, which are cleverly designed to take advantage of new distribution modes and viewing habits.
That is not even taking into consideration the absolute sense of immersion one gets from watching multiple television episodes without the hassle of dealing with ostentatious commercials and interruptions. If cliff-hangers are really effective and suspenseful they will not need a whole week to breathe, and taking breaks does nothing to maintaining the so-called ‘time-line’ of the television universe. In fact, binge-viewing, as Wilson notes, ‘strips away the fig leaf of the weekly episode format, revealing ropey plot lines and repetitive tropes.’ The viewer often has the opportunity to cast a more discerning eye over proceedings, which subsequently puts the onus on the show writers to constantly deliver quality.
That is not to say every television show is suitable for bingeing. The most exciting and thought-provoking new drama series, Hannibal, offers a malaise of death and despair, making the viewing of even a single episode per week a gut-wrenching experience. Shortly before the premiere of Arrested Development’s fourth season, creator Mitch Hurwitz even advised that fans not feel ‘obligated to watch it all at once.’ Perhaps he forecast what was coming: many of the jokes were so densely interwoven in the season’s Rashomon-inspired structure it meant they didn’t instantly resonate with critics too distracted pre-planning their reviews.
Which leaves television addicts with the ultimate question: to binge or not? If escaping into a favourite fictional world from the comfort of the couch does not seem like a bad way to spend a weekend, the decision has already been made…
Scott Macleod (@ScottWMacleod) is a Killings columnist, academic, freelance writer and ardent cinephile. He currently lives in the lovely town of Adelaide, the so-called ‘home of serial killers’.