For an obsessive television fan, finding that a beloved show has released a whole batch of episodes to binge, is essentially Christmas times a thousand. The thrill that you have a whole few days ahead to spend reacquainting yourself with your favourite characters, and immersing yourself in their world all over again, is one of the great pleasures of TV’s new internet age.
My first experience of the phenomenon happened when Netflix mounted a revival of one of my favourite comedies, Arrested Development, as part of its first batch of original programming in 2013 (which also included Lilyhammer and House of Cards). The way it used the format was ingenious; the season was set over a single period, but each episode covered it from a different character’s perspective. The complexity of gags and intricacy of writing was taken to a new level due to the intertwining format. It didn’t have to worry about viewers not remembering small details, as they would be watching the episodes in one go, without long gaps. As an avenue for storytelling, binge watching already looked like an advantage to creatives.
And it was. Four years later, and releasing episodes in one batch is Netflix’s regular, and incredibly successful, practice. Last year’s Stranger Things was one of original programming’s breakout successes, and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror reached new levels of fame after switching to Netflix and adopting its ‘all at once’ method.
“On the cusp of an exciting new age for television”
Stranger Things used the format to feel more like a novel, a whole divided, the episodes being labelled ‘Chapters’, and Black Mirror, whilst split into self-contained episodes, also put it to use, by making opening the online box set much like opening an anthology of short stories. The urgency to catch up and finish these pieces of event television created a new thrill in their release, whilst also allowing for convenience to watch in one’s own time rather than to a regimented schedule. Netflix content boss Ted Sarandos was quoted last year as saying this ‘move away from appointment television is enormous’, stating they don’t want to ‘drag people back to something they’re abandoning in huge numbers’. However, this blanket refusal to adhere in any way to episodic releases seems short-sighted, as it ignores one of television’s most interesting storytelling devices: time.
Sometimes a break between viewings can allow time to reflect, can ramp up suspense, and increase audience speculation and discussion. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this would be my contrasting experiences of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Breaking Bad is often used to illustrate addictive television and binge watching, despite being initially broadcast as a weekly episodic series, due to its prominence on Netflix and availability in box set form. I binge watched the show in about a month, and it was one of the most exhilarating rides I’ve ever had with a TV show.
However, when its prequel, Better Call Saul came along, the decision was made to keep the weekly format, despite its subsequent binge success. After watching the first three seasons of Better Call Saul in this format, I can understand why. This is a show so preoccupied with small moments, with slow burn, that binging it would be to only see the bigger picture and not the vital small components. Waiting week after week to see when and how Jimmy McGill will inevitably become Saul Goodman becomes an exercise in suspense. Each morally ambiguous decision can be dissected and discussed before the next, and creates a real relationship between the show and its audience.
“Both binge releases and paced viewing are powerful tools”
Both binge releases and paced viewing are powerful tools for artists working in television, and neither of them should be dismissed. Instead, their coexistence should be embraced, as a way for writers to tell their stories on their own terms, and not be restricted by the imposing schedules of traditional broadcasting. Episodes should appear when the creators want them to appear, when they feel it is right for the story, whether that be all at once, or scattered across a period of time. It is not about which technique is best objectively, but which technique is best for the particular show. We’re on the cusp of an exciting new age for television, let’s not limit ourselves either way here.