Friday, January 19, 2018

binge watching

Remember when TV was memorable?

I’m talking about a TV series that would offer season after season of half hour or hour-long entertainment.  There used to be shows that told stories and had jokes and maybe they weren’t the best quality stories or jokes, but you could remember them. 

I guess some of you are of an age that you know what I mean.  There may be a few of you here who have this new modern relationship with TV and you’ve forgotten how TV used to be.

Back in the day, TV networks would take a pilot show, a show introducing the characters and major idea of a potential series, and they’d decide it was worth a significant financial investment.  They’d contract with the writers and actors and make the changes they wanted.  All in the quest of making a weekly show that people would want to watch.  The shows aired once each week during the season, which more or less came down to fall through spring on the calendar.  You’d watch a show and you’d wait until the next week to watch it again.  A whopping seven days later!

I remember cartoons from childhood.  These were the good cartoons with Buggs Bunny, Tom and Jerry and maybe even the original Scooby Doo.  But I’m not even talking about those as a TV series because they were not really following the weekly TV show plan.  From my childhood there was Magnum PI, Dallas, Dynasty and Simon and Simon.  Again, I’m not arguing they were great shows, but I remember them.  More specifically, not only do I remember them in bits and pieces now, but I remembered them back then from episode to episode and season to season.  These were the days of the big cliffhanger episode as a season finale in the spring and you’d have to wait all summer to find out who shot JR or if your favorite character’s car was going to topple over that cliff.

Then they screwed up TV.  By “they” I mean Netflix.  And by “screwed up” I mean, they started breaking the rules and messing with the calendar.  Since Netflix wasn’t network TV and they had the ability to stream their own content directly into your home, they could release an entire season of a show all at once.  Perhaps at midnight.  Some dude would click a mouse and the entire season of writing and acting would just appear on your screen.  The whole season was there ready to be watched.  You’d turn on your Netflix the following day and boom, there it was.

I do suppose “they” could be us, though.  Or maybe you, not me.  Because what you and a lot of your friends did that following day is watch the entire season of a show.  All at once.  Sometimes without getting up.  Binge watching.

I am mostly innocent of this because I’m old.  And a bit hyper.  And my wife who happens to be my main TV watching partner is prone to falling asleep after one episode.  We’ve tried to binge watch and we can’t.  It just doesn’t work for us.  We have kids and jobs and hobbies.  After work there’s dinner to cook, dishes to clean, kids to force under a shower or into a tub, clothes and lunches to prepare, more work to do from home and then there’s that wonderful thing we like to call sleep.  All of those things conspire to give us very little time to watch TV.

Honestly, this doesn’t bother me very much.  Back in college I gave up TV watching completely for a year and a half.  I realized just how much more time I had because of not watching TV.  After college we mostly watched movies on our TV but we would watch an occasional series like Friends or Dawson’s Creek.  Then I went back to school and the rare movie was all I saw.  After that we moved out into the middle of nowhere and decided to stop throwing money away to have a million channels with nothing interesting to watch.  We ditched the dish and cable and got Netflix instead. 

I liked Netflix because it encouraged only intentional TV watching.  You have to sit down with something in mind or be lucky enough to scroll through and find something fast.  The best thing was getting the DVDs in the mail.  I could go through the library and set up a list of movies I wanted to see or classic movies I wanted to show the kids to help culture them properly.  But when the Netflix original shows started, I didn’t know how to react.  It seemed logical to me and most practical for our lives to watch the shows periodically when we had time.

But no one else did that.  Our friends would talk about watching an entire season of Stranger Things in a weekend.  I would hear someone say they stayed up all night to watch House of Cards in one sitting.  Some of our more normal friends will take a whole week to watch the new season of Orange is the New Black.  And you know how it is with shows like that.  Part of the fun is talking about it.  You have to talk through the story and the twists with your friends.  But when they come to us after two weeks, two months or even a couple of years…sometimes we’re still not finished with the 13 episodes. 

The real problem though is that when we hurry and try to watch the season as fast as we can, it goes faster than we can process fully.  A couple of weeks pass and we sit down with an extra hour and spend the first 15 minutes of the next episode trying to figure out what happened in the last one.  I know I’m old, but I don’t think this is just a problem with my memory.  Keep in mind, I can still remember those TV shows from childhood.

When you get through your season of the show, whether you binge watch it or just try to get it in during a couple of months, then you come to the realization that you don’t get another episode for almost an entire year.  Ten months for us slow people.  There’s no way you can remember what happened last year on that show that you rushed and watched in a few sittings.  I know people who re-watch the season just before the new season is released.  I will never have that kind of time to waste. 

This way of doing TV shows is no good.  When you binge watch a show, you forget it fast.  There’s no seven day waiting period between episodes for your to fully digest what has happened.  During that week you talk about the story line with your friends.  You consider how the story got to this point and where you think it may be going.  This allows for you to participate in some way with the show.  When you watch back-to-back episodes, you don’t need to think.  Your questions are answered in the next few minutes and you never have to really engage with the story.  It’s the fast food of the TV industry.  Instant gratification followed by regret and indigestion.

A month after watching the final episode, the story has faded.  You’ve moved on to the next series and you don’t think about that one again for another year. 

Just this morning I noticed something that indicates Netflix may be realizing this mistake.  David Letterman had a new show and Netflix will be releasing it one episode per week.  The article I read said something like “a show like this must be savored”.  Savored instead of devoured.  There are probably a lot of other, more important areas of our lives where this phrase could be helpful.  We do a lot of devouring.  I’d like to do more savoring.

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