The pros and cons of binge-watching

While some shows are perfectly designed to gulp down in one greedy mouthful, others deserve time to breathe...

Netflix seemingly came along at the perfect time. TV shows like Breaking Bad were revolutionising the medium, raising the quality to a place it had never been before and taking advantage of the greater time television affords to tell deeper, subtler and more sprawling stories than film ever could. And as more and more ‘must see’ TV came out and more people started catching up through weekend binge sessions, Netflix hit the scene with a brilliant idea that capitalised on new trends; have the whole season at once and watch at your leisure.

It’s hard to resist the appeal of the binge. Want to know what happens next? The answer is a click away. And there’s not much more enjoyable then spending a rainy day on the couch watching episode after episode of a new favourite show. As TV becomes less episodic with each instalment functioning more as a chapter of a larger story than something that can be watched in isolation, bingeing seems like the way to go. At least to a point.

To make my argument I’m going to go back a few years to when Mad Men was at the height of its prestige status (not that it ever really wasn’t). It was about 2011 and, waiting for a new season of Game Of Thrones, I decided to give Mad Men a try. It was, after all, generally touted as one of the best things on TV. But honestly, watching those early seasons I didn’t get heaps out of it. Sure I enjoyed it enough to keep going and I was starkly affected by certain moments (the ending of season one still hits me like a freight train) but I don’t think I really got it. I certainly didn’t see why it was so adored.

Then in early 2012, by the time I was all caught up, season 5 of Mad Men debuted at the same time as season 2 of Game Of Thrones, and at that point, having recently finished all the books, there was nothing in the world as exciting as more Game Of Thrones. Sure I would watch and like Mad Men, but there was no question in my mind which one I looked forward to more.

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Then about halfway through the respective new seasons something odd started happening. I found myself thinking about Mad Men non-stop in the days between episodes. I read think-pieces, I discussed seemingly small occurrences from the latest instalment with friends and before long Game Of Thrones was second on my Monday night priority list. Mad Men had gone from something I sort of enjoyed to something essential.

Of course, there was a key difference between my experience of the earlier seasons and then of season 5 onwards; I could no longer binge, and so the events of each episode had time to breathe. I could think about the meaning of every little plot development instead of seeing them as just minor moving parts of a bigger story. For the first time I appreciated just how brilliant the craft and storytelling of Mad Men was. Game Of Thrones, the previous favourite, started to seem kind of clumsy and bland by comparison. But then, Game Of Thrones is a show designed for bingeing.

Last year I reviewed the third season of BoJack Horseman for this site. As it is one of my favourites, I was thrilled to get screeners and really excited to launch into the newest episodes. But watching them all over the course of a couple of days swiftly lost its appeal. BoJack Horseman, like Mad Men before it, is a heavy show in which every episode is meticulously constructed. Episodes deserve time to sink in and be appreciated not as a means of separating the show into half hour chunks, but as the method by which the story is delivered, one where patience and appreciation of each individual instalment is rewarding. Something as beautiful, original and transcendental as the season’s fourth episode, Fish Out Of Water, doesn’t deserve to blur into a one-day binge.

Currently I’m reviewing Better Call Saul, and it’s been one of the most rewarding things ever. Getting the episodes early gives me the time to watch each one twice; the first time to enjoy, the second time to analyse and consequently I pick up on so much I would miss otherwise. Obviously not every show has that kind of detail, and expecting people to watch every episode twice before moving to the next one is kind of absurd unless you’re a reviewer like me, but it does make me a little sad that so few people are experiencing the show in a way that has really made it spectacular for me.

Sadder still is hearing from friends that they are ‘waiting to binge’ the whole thing, when I can promise you that is not the best way to experience a story like this. But the reality is that the way we consume TV has fundamentally changed. There is so much content out there and people want to watch it all when they want it in exactly the way they want to watch it. It’s fair enough, but sometimes it’s hard not to see a bit of a loss.

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The reality is that some shows suit bingeing and others don’t. Some shows take time and care to craft each individual episode around a theme and objective (Breaking Bad, Mad Men), others operate like a long movie broken up into digestible chunks that individually lack much structure or shape (Game Of Thrones, most things Netflix produces). The challenge here is knowing which shows to binge and which to take your time with.

Does this imply that shows designed not to be binged are by and large better? Not really. Like anything, different TV shows serve different purposes, and not everything can be Better Call Saul or Mad Men; nor would we want that. It’s often fun to lose yourself in something that doesn’t require as much thought or concentration, and some of my all-time favourite shows (Banshee, for example) make for a great binge. Ultimately, just because we have the entirety of a certain show at our fingertips doesn’t mean it’s a great idea to watch all at once. Short of a detailed guide explaining why one thing should be binged and another shouldn’t, it’s not easy to know going in how whatever you’re about to watch should be approached. And hey, when all is said and done you may well find that watching one Mad Men episode after another is your preferred method of consumption.

But as we go forward and more and more television shows are released under the Netflix model, it’s important to remember that watching something in a blurry weekend might mean that you lose sight of the details that might just make that show one of your favourites. Perhaps the best option is to take your time with the first couple of episodes and see how you feel in that day or so between. And hey, if something isn’t sticking with you when you’re not automatically clicking ‘next’, maybe you’d be better served moving on to something else. You never know when you’ll find yourself appreciating a new classic that you might have missed because you decided to gun through four forgettable seasons of House Of Cards instead.

In short, binge responsibly.