Or: The after-effect of binge watching
An electrified cloud of black smoke hovered overhead, sending me on a mad dash through the treacherous jungle terrain. It would seem I was lost on the island again, trying to solve the mysteries of the Dharma Initiative. Fade to The Doctor, peering out from his blue Police Box, begging me to build a website that would save all of time and space. Cut to that time I stole Gob’s Segway, only to ram it straight into the frozen banana stand. The Bluth family’s anger was nothing compared to the rage of Heisenberg, whom I pissed off when tipping Hank to his operation, leading to my exile into the witness protection program.
I love binge watching TV shows, but it has a strange side-effect – the plot spills into my subconscious, overriding my dreams. Many nights I’ve spent tossing and turning, half dreaming I’m involved in whatever season I’ve been speeding through. The experience sometimes feels like a DVD extra or deleted scene. Surely I’m not the only person to experience this.
My Relationship with Television
I rarely watch movies at home. The ratio at which I think about going to the bathroom or finding a snack in the kitchen always outweighs the entertainment value of a movie. This is an affliction I only suffer in my house, mind you. In a typical year, I probably see 40 or 50 movies at the theater down the street. For me, the pacing of a two hour film is better suited to an immersive experience, and it’s one I treasure. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t enjoy movies – I just can’t focus on them with all the distractions of home.
Which seems rather odd, considering my predilection towards binge watching television shows. When I’m drawn in by a new show, it’s commonplace to devour many seasons in a week. The most recent incarnation of Doctor Who, for example: I completed seven seasons and several Christmas specials, all within a two month span. That constant interaction with a cast of characters starts to envelop my brain, hence the dream about building a website at The Doctor’s request. That particular dream was also influenced by working too much, but I digress.
I spent my formative years without the luxury of cable. When the laugh-track sitcoms of my youth had grown stale, reality TV invaded the airwaves. It seemed like a good time to turn off the TV and read comics instead. And then, David Chase gifted us the Sopranos, elevating the medium to new heights. Writers everywhere rejoiced, realizing there was a smarter audience, and they wanted to be entertained.
Changing the Structure of Content
Around 76% of Netflix subscribers watch three or more episodes of a show in a single viewing. Typical seasons of 22 episodes are consumed in a week or less. The original programming found on Netflix is geared toward this audience, but not written for the experience of marathon viewing. Not yet, anyway.
Dramatic TV storytelling is built around the cliffhanger. The shocking reveal at the end of the episode is meant to linger, allowing the viewer to imagine their own outcomes to the story. This provokes discussion amongst friends, debates at the office water cooler, creating a deeper attachment to a program. Without the wait between episodes, is the suspense as powerful against the instant gratification of marathon viewing? If you’ve read one of the many articles from TV critics denouncing the binge-watch trend, the answer is a resounding NO.
The critics make valid points, but it’s too late – the cat’s out of the bag. So what happens next? Will writers alter the timing and structure of their screenplays to fit the new viewing patterns of a changing audience? If streaming-based shows adapt a more binge-focused format, will the networks follow suit? I suspect that traditional television pacing will be the next casualty of our society’s shortening attention span.
I’m sure my dreams will only get stranger.
P.S. – I’d like note that binge-watching, like all things, should be practiced in moderation. Sitting on your ass for hours at a time is a severe detriment to your health. Take a break between every episode to call your mom, go for a jog, or make a nutritious snack. The more you know.