Arts/Literature

The joys of binge-watching

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For the past year I have had some health issues that have taken me out of active circulation—nothing life-threatening, but certainly life changing during the period, and for a little while yet. One of these was a broken bone in my foot that had me sitting in front of the television for a solid six weeks, leg up on the hassock and (for the moment) out of the boot thing they give you these days. The other stuff doesn’t need details, but it also involved being relatively immobile for long periods. Plus the interesting effects of some of what they put you on these days for various things. For someone with no real health issues since I got mono the summer I was 20 and some back stuff in my 30s, this came as something of a surprise. All of a sudden, I’m getting old. All of this has largely plunked me in a chair in front of the television, for a considerably longer time frame that I would have considered healthy, or laying on the couch with my laptop on wherever your lap is when you’re laying down. So this was a golden opportunity to catch up on stuff, through the joys of Netflix and Amazon.

We’ve watched a whole lot of movies over the past year that we had missed (often intentionally) when the appeared in theatres. I finally saw Noah, for example, and understood why I had no interest in seeing it in the theatre. We finally caught up with Margin Call, from way back in 2001, and it was so good we watched it two nights in a row. And there is a whole bunch of small-scale sf movies that appeared—well, I don’t really know from where, but which are now available—The Machine was particularly good for a small film, I thought. The internet is full of these now.

But it was the catch-up tv that really appealed. The first thing we did was watch the final season of Chuck, which we had missed for some reason. And it was great. Chuck was hardly great television, but it had its own style, attractive leads, just the right dose of humour, and lot of harmless silliness. Then on to all five seasons of Fringe—we had missed quite a lot, because in the UK they like to move shows around from time to time and not tell you. Then on to catching up on Person of Interest, a personal favorite, at least the first three seasons again before Channel 5 here started showing Season Four (we’re still waiting to find out when Season Five will be broadcast here.) We’re now working on catching up on White Collar, a pleasant enough show with just the right mix of entertainment components (unlike stuff like Suits, which took itself far too seriously, or Castle, which eventually sunk under the weight of some of the dopiest dialog ever put on television.)

But the real revelation has been the stuff produced by Netscape and Amazon themselves. Not just the entire series that we can watch again and again for as long as we want–that’s how we got to plow through all five seasons of Fringe over a couple of weeks. They are literally changing television right before our eyes. Because they’re putting their own shows up there, the whole thing at one shot, and we can control our watching—whenever and wherever we want. No wonder the networks and cable companies are apoplectic. The internet has changed everything, once again. John Chambers knew what he was talking about.

So last week I just finished the three-night binge of Sense8, which is an absolutely terrific show. It’s the Wachowksys, which means it has lots of good and entertaining fight scenes. But it also has what this sort of show offers as a key attribute—the ability to basically novelize a series with terrific production values. The notion of “arcs” is not new, of course—it goes back to Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere in the 1980s, as well as a whole raft of shows since then (particularly sf invasion shows, for some reason). Its influence on television has been deep and lasting. Most long lasting dramatic series have one or indeed several–Fringe being an obvious recent case in point, but even fluffier stuff like White Collar (which we haven’t watched the final season of, because of distractions, but we’ll get there eventually). Lots of older shows, too, like Fallen Skies, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I am just embarking on. Everyone favorite show of all time, The Sopranos. The Serenity/Firefly series, which are always good for a watch-through every couple of years. From time to time I would just pop in the Alec Guinness Tinker Tailor, or the Richard Lester Three Musketeers/Four Musketeers, and luxuriate.

But here you get to modulate the arcs, and focus on a number of attributes at will—in some cases, certain characters, in some cases complex plots. So in Sense8 we get a long drawn out vision of relationships forming and reforming as the principals come to understand what it is about themselves that may make them unique. It’s story-telling of a very high order, with the ability to develop characters  as you would in a good novel, and with an interesting plot to hold you as well. And it was designed for binge-watching–when Netflix put it up, you could veg out for a couple of days doing nothing other that watching the show. Same with other Netflix and Amazon shows. We hadn’t watched the charming and very funny Mozart in the Jungle until it won a Golden Globe award for best comedy show on television–but then we got to go watch the entire first season over three nights. Delightful. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy The Man in the High Castle, a number of people did. And, of course, Netflix brought us Transparent, with the joy of Jeffrey Tambor in a series lead.

And it lets the networks, if that’s what we call them now, experiment. Netflix had a fun little dystopian sf show on called Residue, which was on for three whole episodes. I thought it was very watchable, and apparently enough other people did as well, so that there is now a longer Season Two in the works. Excellent news for us fans. But, equally important, it shows how Netflix and Amazon can further change the face of television–find your micro-audience, and experiment. The audience for dystopian sf shows appears to be very broad, but there is a whole range of shows in that universe, ranging from the extremely dopey (The Lost World) to the creative and occasionally brilliant. The SF channel itself has had a major role in this, moving from sharks in everything to shows like 12 Monkeys, inspired by but different from the Terry Gilliam movie, and excellent in its own right. I just binge-watched the entire season 1 after discovering its joys by an accidental watching of the first show of Season 2, and wondering what the hell was going on. Now it’s easy to find out–you just trawl through Netflix or Amazon, or your regional movie channel (ours is Sky Movies), and there’s a good chance it’s there. Or you just go buy the DVD.

This won’t work with everything. The notion of binge-watching episodes of Duck Dynasty or any of the Kardashian foolishness is enough to prompt suicidal thoughts, although I’m sure there are lots of people out there who do this. And there are shows that just resist the concept entirely–I love Penny Dreadful, a show that had jumped the shark before it even showed up on the screen, but I wouldn’t dream of watching this more than one episode at a time. Nor do Netflix and Amazon have everything–there are old movies or television shows I would like to watch again, but the DVDs, if hey existed in the first place, are out of print, or whatever the correct technical term is, and they haven’t been picked up by anyone yet. Anyone else remember VR-5? But I suspect over time they will be. I would like to binge-watch that old Tony Randall series where he played a judge in Philadelphia–I remember it as being one of the funniest shows ever put on television, and I would, at least, like to see if my memory is correct. And I’d like to see if those old Fernwood 2night and America 2night shows, with the inspired pairing of Martin Mull and the great Fred Willard, still hold up.

And yes, this isn’t all that new. You could binge-watch all you wanted back in the VHS days, but the offerings were, frankly, limited (although I have saved my Kolchak tape for sentimental reasons). And there was probably an upper limit of how many vhs tapes you wanted to shell out for, to say nothing of having room for. Those things took up a lot of space. But what the internet has done is put it all (or most of it ) up there. The internet takes up no space at all.

And what Netflix and Amazon have figured out is that you can give an audience a creative and intelligent product and the audience will respond. Too bad the mainstream networks continue to lag here–otherwise, why is Person of Interest, one of the best shows ever on television, being cancelled? (Of course, I suppose either Netflix or Amazon, or someone like HBO, could pick it up, but they haven’t). The point is now organizations like Neflix and Amazon are now putting up shows specifically designed for binge-watching. This is a good thing, I think, in the evolution of visual entertainment. My cognitive abilities for being intelligently (or otherwise) entertained can certainly extend beyond an hour, especially when my foot is in a cast. Of course, HBO had figured this out years ago, but they didn’t control a big slug of the internet. Netflix and Amazon are moving into a controlling position here.

So now I’m about to settle in for a couple of days and enjoy The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Then have to decide about  re-watching all of Twin Peaks, or just the final season. Decisions, decisions!

1 reply »

  1. I don’t think I’m built for binge watching. By the third episode, I’m done, no matter how good the show is. I think my wife could binge watch herself into a coma.

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