Mar 12, 2015

My Problem With Binge Watching Culture

I would like to open by stating that I have only watched two episodes of the new Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. To some, this statement is a confusing non-issue that either expresses my disdain (which I don't have) or my lack of free time. However, it has felt like an issue when addressing contemporary TV habits in public. The truth is that I really like the show and find Ellie Kemper infectious perfection. My big issue is more in maintaining the newness and allowing a show to feel that way in between seasons. I want the shows that I like to feel relevant as I wait until next year for a new batch of episodes. To say the least, I haven't had the best of experiences in the world with binge watching, and it has likely clouded my vision of this new glorified tradition in TV obsessives.
It all started a few years ago when I first discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Netflix. Considering that I was a fan of the horror as teen angst metaphors that the show delivered, I immediately connected with episodes that I was later told by internet consensus were bad. However, that WB/UPN show was 144 episodes long and no easy feat. I was almost too panicked to give it a fair shot. However, I finally entered what was essentially known as binge watching where I would complete a season on average in a week and a half. I kept an opinion journal on Facebook, if just to connect with other fans. Then I finished it after almost a year of watching it on and off. 

This was many years ago and I have some unfortunate news to share. It has shaped why I have never done anything on par with three episodes a day for any show spanning over 144 episodes. I may have watched all of Breaking Bad to their momentary completion on two separate summers, but that was full of audience interaction and podcasts recapping episodes. These are things I learned to essentially milk an episode and make it mean something, even as I longed to press 'Next' on my remote. Despite finding a lot to admire about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I essentially forgot large swaths of the show. I will occasionally hear deep cut jokes and feel lost. I had sat there and seen it all happen, but I couldn't recall more than the major moments.
This isn't to say that I didn't watch "long" shows ever again. I watched Netflix's Kids in the Hall sketches, which equaled 100 episodes in between my free times. I have even gotten into HBO shows where I finished The Wire in a few months while doing it on and off. To me, there's merit in watching an entire show, but I find that reading about my friends seeing all of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones in less than a week, I wonder how that can be. Maybe it is reflective of me as a person, but I couldn't retain information that much. I fear the moments blurring together and some episodes being forgotten entirely. I may have participated in watching large chunks of the FXX marathon Every Simpsons Ever, but I had a preexisting relationship to the show that made those numbing moments more forgivable.
It also is essentially that the narrative drama/comedy model has progressed so much to benefit a bigger viewing habit. There's more of a need for a progression to story to be the norm instead of basically having Soap as a black sheep. It has helped TV in a lot of ways and is the reason that the "golden era" mantra in the early 00's is more than valid thanks to shows like Six Feet Under and Deadwood. Suddenly it felt like an investment instead of something you randomly popped on when you had down time. Sure, you could pop on a random Deadwood, but you wouldn't fully appreciate Al Swearengen's communication skills with Mr. Wu. Seeing every episode makes sense, but watching it all in large chunks at a time doesn't (unless you have limited free time to do so, then I'm not talking directly to you anymore).
In the time since I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I have probably watched dozens of older shows in their completion. Sometimes it was simply to catch up. Others it was to inform my holes in pop culture history. However, I have done it more cautiously in ways that make me realize that I am indeed not a victim of binge watching. Yes, I watch quite a few shows weekly, but comparatively that's only a few hours to sitting around and watching a random show that is in the public zeitgeist at the moment. I have never done that as carelessly...
Except for Transparent.
Maybe carelessly is the wrong word for a show that is so powerful, funny and moving in progressive ways. Like most people, I got caught up in the hoopla of it being an important show. In fact, the way that writer Jill Soloway told the story felt even more-so because it introduced transgender topics in an accessible manner to a wider audience. With 10 episodes averaging five hours, I watched it over a weekend, spreading it out to a few a day, which still equaled less than two hours a day. In my general thinking, binge watching is in excess of over four hours, which is a limit too uncomfortable for me.
Did I forget this show much like how I forgot Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Nope. Of course, it seems unfair to judge a freshman show that is 14x shorter against something that was on decades ago. It could just be that I was a fan of Soloway's work on Six Feet Under, but it felt very accessible and I couldn't stop. I wanted to join the conversation. It isn't that I forgot the characters or their events, either. Months later and I still can recall the show because it still feels fresh and important. I am not wishing for this article to look like an advertisement for Transparent, but I feel it is indicative to bring it up in the grander portrayal of how I view this behavior of excessive watching.
Was it antithetical to my nature? Yes. I am only grateful that the show has stayed with me. So why am I so against getting through Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as quickly as Transparent? There is no discernible answer other than it's tonally a different show. Where I can find rich subtext in one show, I feel like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is predicated on spontaneity and enjoying the laugh. Also, since I was more expecting that show to receive a second season, I already knew that once the episodes were done, I would have to wait. For what it's worth, Transparent still feels like a fluke that it managed to be as successful as it has. I cannot wait for more episodes, though I didn't initially think it was going to happen.
So it sounds like I am not taking offense to short shows at all. In fact, I don't really have any at all. While I choose to cherish a show by giving it time to unfold and let each episode digest, I understand those who see half hour comedies as convenient time fillers. It is how most sitcoms on regular TV is predicated. Sitcoms usually aren't dense programming anyways and more reliant on jokes, which if you're in a bad mood is a nice repellent. 
However, there's a bigger issue regarding programming in general that was launched by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but not exclusively its problem. Is there any chance that these type of shows can remain relevant? Who is talking about Lilyhammer or Marco Polo? These are both Netflix series that you have likely seen advertisements for. I am not saying that they're necessarily life-changing series, but they have not benefited from the binge model that everyone so loves. In fact, few people know that Lilyhammer predates House of Cards and set up the model before the Kevin Spacey drama took the world by temporary storm. The issue with binge culture is... you'll forget to talk about things.


Now comes to the final issue. Over last year, I watched all of Mad Men in order to prepare for the final season next month. I started in June and ran until late December. While it also helped that I wrote a series called Mad Cap to coincide with each episode, I found that taking my time through the lengthy series allowed me to enjoy the moments in a show more character based than action oriented. The series had a legacy that preceded it as I would go through episodes and I would ask myself "Why is this so special?" I would watch "The Briefcase" and immediately read up on opinions of why it is the show's best episode. Moments have stood out and I have connected with the show, even if I was the only one aware of my venture. This could just be because the show aired for seven years prior, but it felt important on a week-to-week basis and allowed for communication to be possible. It's what made Breaking Bad a phenomenon in ways that binge watchers will not understand. The word of mouth feels important.
I am not saying that Netflix's strategy isn't impossible to succeed. It has a few series that have taken public consciousness. There's of course Orange is the New Black, which outshone House of Cards upon its premiere. However, there's outlier shows like Bojack Horseman that has been all but forgotten because there's too much out there. In this game, it is important to be important. Their choice to release dozens of shows annually is only going to make things worse. Maybe they won't ever get to 144 episodes on anything, but they will manage to muddy the conversation in a way that is different from public consumption.
Here's the issue. With Mad Men, I was familiar with the week-to-week conversation. Even from the outskirts, I could hear critics discussing it and fans wondering what would happen next. There was a conversation that is frankly missing. At best, Orange is the New Black had broken into conversation territory months after its release. There's no focus on a specific episode anymore, which doesn't allow for moments to digest. It is an issue currently facing House of Cards, which has long masqueraded as Netflix's flagship series thanks to Spacey and a high caliber cast. While I have yet to watch a single episode, I only know it's important because people have told me it's important (that and it is one of very few online series to have televised commercials). 
The game is changing and while the golden era benefited from audience interaction, I feel like we're entering a zone where interaction is now into different camps. While I am immune to spoiler culture, I have come across a lot of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt content by the end of its release day on Friday. There were gifs highlighting jokes from the back half of the season. In a sense, I was more riled up that people consumed it like a drink through a straw and were burping out the satisfaction. It would settle and eventually leave their system. Still, I think that saying that I have only seen two episodes comes across as blasphemous now. I am an outcast unable to enjoy conversations that will become irrelevant by the time I actually do finish. 
I might watch House of Cards one day. However, I don't know the first thing about it at this point. I am not saying it's a bad thing, but let's just tie Mad Men back into this. I never saw an episode of the show. I knew nothing of the Don Draper myth from having experienced an episode. Yet I knew that "The Briefcase" was important or that it was a show worthy of my attention because people were talking about it. By segregating audiences into camps, you face either learning too much before you see it (which limits general output anyways), or getting into debates on what is appropriate to share regarding stories. As it stands, I think that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is mostly benefiting from being new and from 30 Rock creator Tina Fey. Those are the factors that count.
If nobody is talking about the show, how does it stand any chance of being important? Does anyone care about Amazon Prime's new series Bosch or Mozart in the Jungle? Did anyone know that Playstation and Hulu now have their own programming as well? If these were released weekly on various channels, the conversation may be different. In fact, Comedy Central has taken unknown shows like Broad City and Review and turned their weekly viewing into a word of mouth thing that has only benefited them. As much as I love Bojack Horseman, I don't feel like it has gotten anything near Broad City conversation levels not because it's an outlier, but because nobody knows what to talk about it because nobody is sure how much was seen of it.
So there are two types of "forgetting" a show in terms of why I am opposed to binge watching. The first is obvious. Watching it all at once means that moments will blur together, making you forget them in rapid succession. You will forget whatever else as you impatiently wait for more episodes. The audience interaction becomes too frayed and suddenly spoiler culture seems irrelevant, shut down because nobody wants to ruin House of Cards or even comment on the good episodes. This wasn't a problem with Mad Men. Everyone watched it together. As much as I want to give Netflix its due for making top notch programming, it also makes it more possible for shows to fade into obscurity whether from excessive viewing or inability to spark public discussions. That is the problem. Media should be discussed. By cutting that off, even the most important of things ceases to be relevant.
This is a roundabout reason as to why I am restraining myself from watching all of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt within a month. It may make me seem crazy, but I like the feeling of discovering something without feeling pressured into it. It is how I have watched Orange is the New Black by recapping it weeks after people had quieted on the subject. I do believe that word of mouth in these circumstances can help a show. However, once they're big, there's a secrecy clause that plays against it. This is the problem with binge culture in my opinion and why I refuse to participate in it, even if I do occasionally blast through short shows in a weekend. 

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