We have all done it. Our friends do it. Our family does it. Binge-watching TV shows is as common as renting a movie at a video store was in the 90’s. Now many of the most popular shows, or at least the ones that get the most internet coverage, are made specifically for all-at-once consumption.
What was once an activity for the most dedicated fans with DVD box sets is now encouraged to be the norm, with the most popular streaming services placing entire series online for consumption. Along with the shows created for streaming distribution, some were made before the idea of binge-watching was even conceived, making the form of consumption available but not ideal. However, streaming services obtain the rights for and release these shows for that very purpose, changing the criteria for that show to be considered successful.
Netflix’s House of Cards, the most commonly binge-watched show was also made specifically with the activity in mind. Each 13-episode season released at once, each episode titled as a “Chapter,” continuing throughout the series. Like many fans, I went through the show’s fourth season in the first weekend of release. I enjoyed the season but afterwards, only one episode (“Chapter 33”) stuck out to me as being a great episode of TV. There were plenty of memorable moments throughout the season, but not enough contained in single episodes that make up what we would traditionally call a classic season of television.
That’s one of the advantages to binge-watching though. If an episode falls short of the show’s standard, the next one is a click away. It wouldn’t be surprising if Cards was made knowing not every episode would be a slam dunk. If the show took a more traditional means of release, it would be reaching for a much higher standard on an episode-by-episode basis.
Friends is the direct opposite of Netflix’s political drama, yet Netflix expected audiences to experience it in the same way when they added the series at the the start of this year. While the gang never got into any folksy discussions about power, the true differences are in the way the the shows are packaged.
With 233 episodes spread across 10 seasons, bingeing Friends requires a much greater commitment. Beyond that, though, the show isn’t made for consuming multiple episodes in a day, even if many do it with the reruns airing on cable. Each half hour was originally meant for weekly viewing. The series’ central hook — the relationship between Ross and Rachel — loses much of its weight when their romance lasts four days rather than the year-plus it lasted in its original run.
While Netflix certainly expected people to marathon the series, they imagined it to be an exercise in nostalgia, rather than a brand new experience. Leading up to its release, the streaming giant released this infographic, highlighting various playlist options.
For those experiencing the show for the first time — surprisingly, there are many — I’d be surprised if they made it out of the first season.
As the 20-plus episode season has become less financially viable in recent years, the shortened seasons have allowed for more focused storytelling. The best example of this is Friday Night Lights, which the vast majority of fans experienced on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. The show’s excellent first season is 22 episodes, the even more outstanding third, fourth and fifth seasons are only 13 episodes each and more focused in their plot and characterization, doing away with half-season subplots in favor of more satisfying season-long plots.
Friday Night Lights took what was once the format for a traditional network drama and successfully molded it into a format more reminiscent of cable shows. This hybrid has been continued on the major networks, with the likes of ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder, which uses 16-episode seasons, or NBC’s Hannibal.
AMC’s Mad Men has followed a similar format with no season exceeding thirteen hours, with exception to the current and final season which has been split into two, seven-episode half-seasons. This is likely an attempt to bring in a maximum number of viewers for the finale, a la the final season of Breaking Bad, which grew in audience with every season thanks to the show being on Netflix.
Yet after re-watching Mad Men‘s last seven-episode run over two days, it felt like CliffsNotes for a series of fan-fiction stories. An event like Ginsberg’s self-inflicted, nippleectomy comes abruptly when it would normally be a major plot-point in the season’s penultimate episode. Again, this is due to suffocating a show that has had no problem producing character-driven episodes into a tighter format, making for what will likely be a disjointed binge session once the seventh season is finished.
Premiering April 12 is the fifth season of Game of Thrones, a series that closely resembles House of Cards in its format. Until this upcoming season, which is said to split away significantly from George R.R. Martin’s books series, each season represents a book from “A Song of Fire and Ice,” with seasons three and four being two halves of the third book. This, along with the intricate mythology and character relationships, make it perfect for binge-watching.
I recently re-watched the entire fourth season as a refresher for the upcoming season premiere and it felt like a whole piece, rather than individual episodes, in a more satisfying way than House of Cards. While each episode feels like a part of a greater season, they also build on each other. More importantly, every episode feels like the result of not only of the previous episodes of that season, but the episodes from the very first season. This makes major plot points and character changes possible in even the third episode of a season, not just the end.
While this format might not work as well for weekly viewing, particularly in the show’s first season that spends a lot of time establishing relationships and mythology, it works extremely well for binge-watching. I envy those who will discover the show after it’s finished and watch the show for the first time as a complete work.
Binge-watching has added an entirely new criteria by which we judge our shows, to the point that it influences their production and distribution model. Fortunately, many shows have found a way to straddle the old model with the new. These shows have likely been pitched for a long time but only now, the higher-ups recognize their audience. Judging shows by this plot-focused criteria could be why more character-driven work like Looking fail to draw a sizeable audience, thus limiting the versatility television provides. When it works, though, it makes for what is arguably the most satisfying viewing experience available.