On Thursday, Netflix announced the long-awaited debut date of the fourth season of Arrested Development. Like many fans of the cult comedy, I can’t wait till May 26. I’m planning to gobble up all 15 episodes in two sittings at most, if not one. I’m sure I’ll be far from alone in binging on the Bluth family.
This sort of all-at-once viewing represents one of two forks that television is taking in this increasingly digital entertainment age. The New York Times recently had a story looking at some of the mechanical changes that binge viewing is forcing. Producers aren’t bothering to put in recaps or flashbacks anymore, for example, because they’re assuming that viewers are clued in and don’t need to be reminded of what happened in the last episode.
It seems that binging is going to force even deeper changes to shows, beyond just simple structural issues, to how the stories are told and the very essence of the series themselves. Episodic entertainment is going to have to introduce a lot more variety to keep viewers interested.
It’s probably best to illustrate with some examples. In recent months, my wife and I got turned on to two new comedy shows through Netflix: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League. At first, we found both hilarious, so naturally we started binging on them. But after a season or two of each, we started to find each episode less and less funny. By the end, we were kind of sick of ’em.
The problem? We found that both shows served up the same thing, over and over. On It’s Always Sunny, things always devolve into the despicable group of characters yelling at each other. On The League, the humour inevitably revolves around a group of guys (and one gal) making fun of each other. Both are funny at first, but when you watch episode after episode, it gets old, quick.
I’ve chatted about this phenomenon with friends, and we’ve come to a general agreement – we might not get tired of these shows if we watched them only once a week, the way we did in the old-school days of TV. But when we take them all in at once, the sameness really beats you over the head.
My favourite show of all time remains Buffy the Vampire Slayer, exactly because it was the opposite of this. One week, you might get serious drama, the next might be horror, the following might be comedy, and then you’d get some real gold occasionally, like a musical episode. It was a show that was ahead of its time in many ways, especially in that it was perfect for binge watching via DVD. I watched all seven seasons in something like two weeks.
Similarly, my current favourite show is Community, which also varies greatly from episode to episode. One week you might get stop-motion animation, the next might be documentary style, and the next might be 8-bit computer graphics. Hell, with Community you never know what you’re going to get, which is why it’s so great. It’s a show that’s tailor made for Netflix, which is why it’s really bizarre that it’s not on the U.S. service (it’s one of the few things we Canadians have that our American cousins don’t).
By that estimation, Arrested Development should do well. Its episodes are weird, wacky and different enough from each other that it’ll be hard to get fatigued, even after seven-plus hours straight.
But the sort of binge viewing that Netflix is encouraging is completely divergent from the other path TV is taking – that of social watching. It’s a trend that’s particularly prevalent with sports and other events that must be watched live (like the Oscars), if Twitter’s partnerships with the likes of ESPN are any indication. A growing number of people are enjoying watching TV “together,” where they’re commenting on it on Twitter while it’s actually airing.
Anyone who’s tried this knows how much fun it can be – the comments and observations about what’s happening can often be much more entertaining that’s what on screen. I remember when I first joined Twitter a few years ago, I got much more pleasure in mocking live episodes of 24 with friends and strangers than I did from the show itself.
That’s something you can’t really do with binge viewing, since everyone is obviously watching at their own pace, which is kind of too bad.
Will the two paths ever converge? Most likely. Surely, someone somewhere will organize a mass synchronized binge Twitter viewing of Arrested Development on the 26th. If so, please let me know, because I’ll so be there.