These days, I mostly do binge TV.
While I realize this is hardly akin to admitting to crack addiction, there is a bit of of an internet rumble going on these days over the proper way to watch television.
A recent article in Slate by Jim Pagels warned of the dangers of watching all the episodes of a TV season in a row. Apparently it can cause cancer. Or it at least presents the medium in a way in which it was not intended. We need those week-long pauses to meditate on the meaning, absorb the impact, let the episode find its place in the social landscape, etc.
Now others are firing back, most notably Time magazine’s James Poniewozik in an in-depth article at Time.com that’s great reading.
Me, I’ve been considering the subject of proper viewing approaches via another medium — movies — for quite a while.
The point Poniewozik makes early on is that TV isn’t TV any more, just as I would argue that movies aren’t movies in the traditional sense. Most people don’t watch movies in movie theaters anymore — they watch them on DVDs, on computer screens, via streaming services, through videogame players, heck, on their tablets and cell phones. Or, duh, on TV.
As a critic I know I’m supposed to be all about the purity of the moviegoing experience, the wonderful audience effect, the no-pause tension, the sheer size and volume of the spectacle. And there’s certainly some value to all of that.
But there’s also value in not having to hear a bunch of strangers talk through a film, to watching a film without feeling your bladder may burst, and having the intimate contact that a giant plasma TV, killer sound system and comfy chair can bring.
These days I watch about a third of all the films I review at home, and to be honest they are generally the better films I see since they tend to be indie efforts or foreign films that have survived the competition to play the United States. “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Damsels in Distress,” “Bernie” — these are among the films I’ve screened at home this year and among the best I’ve seen this year.
I certainly acknowledge that some films play far better on big screens — last year’s “The Artist,” this year’s “Marvel’s The Avengers” — but moviewatching is just not the experience it once was. It’s gone modern.
Same goes for TV. Matter of fact, the changes are even more drastic, and liberating, when it comes to TV. Watching 13 episodes of “Happy Days” in a row is probably just a bit of pop over-indulgence. But watching the entirety of a series like “Deadwood” at a pace of, say, one episode a night, is a revelation in the long-form drama revolution.
Forgive my feeble brain but a week-long pause between complex shows can fuzz over some of the nuanced connective tissue. It’s far easier to see where a series is going right — and going wrong — when you’re absorbing it at a steady pace.
The great strength of these long-form dramas is they can develop characters of depth far better than either stage or film — where they usually get a couple of hours and then disappear — and then move those characters through evolving and shifting storylines. Taking this all in at a steady pace can be hypnotic and fulfilling in a way that no other medium has accomplished.
To say a series is far better served by the herky-jerky week-long or longer pauses of standard television is just ridiculous. How in sync with the latest season of “The Killing” can you be when the last episode you watched was nine months ago?
My wife and I started bingeing years ago, first with DVD sets, now streaming. We’ve done all of “Friday Night Lights,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Big Love,” “Dexter,” “The Good Wife,” “The West Wing,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Breaking Bad” and many others. We ran through “Girls” in about a week, we’re loving “Louie” right now.
The idea that we’d go back in time and wait around for episodes to appear according to a network’s whims seems as old-fashioned as TV commercials. Or are they also integral to the appreciation of proper television shows? Hope not since I rarely, rarely see one.
Understand, we all have our personal limits and tastes. What’s nice is the modern world accommodates them. I don’t do marathons — a season of “24″ in 24 hours — and I don’t watch movies on my cell phone. But hey, if it works for you, rock on.
Yes, back in the day I looked forward to “Bonanza” all week. But that was going on 50 years ago. The idea of what television and movies are has expanded — new mediums are in play, new forms are taking over.
And thank heavens. Because I can’t wait to watch “Louie” tonight. And tomorrow night.