Recently, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly creator Joss Whedon aired his grievances about the post-Netflix trend of binge-watching. More specifically, he argued that the release of full seasons of TV series in one big lump is narratively problematic and can bastardise the viewing experience. On the topic of gorging on a narrative, he opined, “It loses its power, and we lose something with it.”
It would be over-simplifying things to whittle down Whedon's many-hued opinion into a black-and-white objection. It's obvious the cult showrunner isn't squarely in the anti-binge brigade, but instead is still negotiating his feelings on the future of episodic television.
And his concerns aren’t without merit. Here are some of the ways binge-watching is (and isn’t) messing with television.
All this foreplay and it’s over already?
Being a veteran showrunner in the age of shifting content distribution has got to be a little disorienting, if not downright annoying. For one thing, the lengthy process of getting a season of TV onto the air - planning a season and divvying up episodes between writers, maintaining a consistent vision and tone as the scripts come in, the production process itself - all happens before a single episode screens. It’s no wonder the lump upload model boasts its fair share of dissenters.
Then there's the viewing experience. For Whedon, this new mode of release is akin to sitting a 12-course degustation menu and receiving every plate at the same time. There's no room between courses to let the plate linger in the palate and, therefore, no time for digest the overall meal’s desired completeness.
The Arrested Development experience
Over a decade ago, when the first three seasons of the Bluth family’s journey aired, a few friends and I would gather each week to catch the latest episode of Arrested Development and cry-laugh for 20-odd minutes while intermittently shouting, “C’mon!”
AD was the perfect show for a weekly drip-feed. We were lucky enough to experience creator Mitchell Hurtwitz’s method of calling back to and building upon previous gags in all its glory, and were rewarded incrementally as opposed to having all our Christmases come at once. We wouldn’t have had it any other way - the anticipation between each “On the next Arrested Development...” and “Previously on Arrested Development...” was almost as thrilling as the episodes themselves.
It's unclear what effect logistics had on that odd experiment of a fourth season, but the fact that all 15 episodes appeared at once suggested that’s the way Netflix wanted us to consume the season, so I did, and it made for a suffocating experience.
Breaking Bad: early adopters vs latecomers
Speaking of suffocating, as Breaking Bad didn’t reach the height of its popularity until four years into its run, many latecomers caught up by devouring Walter White’s transformation in a condensed time frame. For every rabid fan, you’d find another who felt their emotional receptors tire and fizzle — unable to handle the show’s unrelenting zip-line towards tragedy.
When watched as released, over the six years it took to tell the tale, Breaking Bad registered as the saga it was intended to be and allowed White’s transformation to feel earned. Again, the deliciously frustrating week-to-week and year-to-year anticipation became a coveted part of the viewer’s journey.
Writing for the binge
These days, modern showrunners are known to write with binge-watching in mind. From Game of Thrones to Westworld to Scandi noir, episode endings seem designed to make viewers turn to each other and remark, “One more?”
Cast your mind back to the '00s heyday of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and The West Wing, where the story moved forward, but each episode felt cohesive in theme, and was satisfying in and of itself. Each piece of the overall story was leavened with such depth and driven by such comprehensive characters that you wouldn’t want to rush any of it even if you could (and you could, thanks to the invention of the DVD boxset).
That said, if you did happen to watch by boxset, you might also feel compelled to ask “one more?”, but it never felt like such outright coercion. These days, cliffhangers are losing their effectiveness as viewers have clocked onto the signs - episode endings often involve sleight-of-hand or red herrings purely to make us think something happened when it didn’t. And it's to the detriment of consistency and cohesion. I’m looking at you, Westworld.
Is Whedon merely refusing to move with the times?
It's worth not overstating the Netflix effect. Sure, we’re granted access to shows in a new (and somewhat overwhelming) fashion, but nobody’s holding a gun to our heads to consume them all at once. And even if we do, there’s something to be said for fully immersing oneself in a story for a single block of time.
There’s also the fact that plenty of network and cable channels still air episodes week to week. Shows like Atlanta and American Crime prove that writing to produce a gob-smacking cliffhanger or reveal isn’t always king.
Thirdly, one can’t deny the pleasures of the re-watching binge. What might be pointless for some, others find rewarding or even comforting. Where would many of us be without The Simpsons marathons?
The Louis CK experiment
Through web series Horace and Pete, a mash-up of sitcom and theatrical play, Louis CK approached TV production in an entirely new way, dropping content like Beyoncé (who dropped it like Radiohead). He bypassed studios, networks and managers/agents, and self-funded the entire production, releasing an episode with minimal fanfare each week for five bucks a pop.
Now, this obviously wouldn’t work with big-budget productions. Even a wealthy man like CK risked much of his liquidity in order to bring the comparatively low-budget project to life. But it does make one wonder whether there are ways for creators to use evolving technologies to suit their attitudes.
Even Whedon admitted that if he was approached by a streaming service and told he could make whatever he wants and release an episode per week, he’d most likely jump at the chance.
Need something to binge (or not - no pressure)? Mafia Only Kills in Summer is on SBS On Demand. Watch the first episode right here: