You might think that binge-watching a TV series, or going through an entire season in one day, is a sign that the series is really good. That is, each episode is so satisfying that you can't wait to get to the next one.
But TV critic Jaime Weinman, in contemplating Netflix's decision to put all 13 episodes of its original series House of Cards online on the same day, suggests that binge-watching might be a way of managing expectations:
Watching an episode a week tends to inflate the importance of every episode, sometimes beyond what a single TV episode can sustain. This, I think, is part of the reason that we’re more likely to be disappointed by new episodes of a series when they appear once a week, and why seasons often look better when they go to DVD or to daily syndication. The shorter the wait between episodes, the less of a life-or-death proposition every episode becomes.
By this reasoning, you should not ask someone out on a date. Instead, you should ask for two weeks' of consecutive nights out, so as to reduce the importance of each one. A faux pas at a restaurant or an implausible twist on the good-night kiss can be explained away as a storytelling experiment that didn't work and won't happen again. ("Let's never mention that I killed a guy I thought was hitting on you.")
Maybe the real-world applications are limited, but I know what Weinman is getting at. Five-night-a-week sitcom reruns have long been popular because if there's a dud episode, you can just think back a day or two to remember why you like the show. When Seinfeld ended its prime-time run in 1998, there was a common belief that the final two seasons (after co-creator Larry David) had a lower success rate and tarnished the show's reputation a bit, but all of that is forgotten in reruns; today, no one turns off an episode because it's from a "wrong" year. (I can't imagine being around in 1962 and spending a whole week after a "B" episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show episode wondering if the series has gone downhill.)
I've even watched sitcoms I don't particularly like in a marathon fashion, going through most of The Golden Girls one summer when the Lifetime channel aired about six times a day. It was like going through a Twitter or Facebook feed before those things existed, plowing through corny jokes and lazy sentiment to find an occasional sharp one-liner.
As for dramas, I've powered through a season or two of pulpy TV series like Damages and Sons of Anarchy but then had no interest in watching them once a week, maybe because I'd have too much time between episodes to think about story coherence and character consistency. My Extra Criticum colleague Bruce Ward writes that this style of watching is "akin to a passionate and intense love affair." (This winter I had a fling with the British series The Hour, which had great atmospherics not the tightest storytelling) But as the Cole Porter song goes, sometimes an affair is "too hot not to cool down." It's a familiar story: dated True Blood, married Mad Men.
Other than a few miniseries, I can’t think of a serialized TV show that I really enjoyed without watching it on a weekly basis. The Sopranos, Deadwood, Friday Night Lights, now Enlightened… All with recaps/reviews and debriefings with friends who are also watching. It helps that these series have such carefully considered endings to each episode, down to the music over the credits. Even when a Breaking Bad episode ends on a cliffhanger, for example, it usually has some kind of period on it. (“Look at how far Walter White has sunk in his depravity.” Until next week.)
If there’s enough interesting things said and written about Netflix’s House of Cards, I’ll probably watch it. But I’ll feel like going to a party an hour after it started and finding that the guests have already left.
Cross-posted at Robert David Sullivan. Also see "Could Netflix’s programming strategy kill the golden age of TV?"