Opinion: ‘Just One More’ – Binge-Watching And How We Digest TV
The first weekend in February this year was something of a cultural landmark. Sometime in the early hours of the Sunday morning, My Bloody Valentine ended a 22-year silence with the release of their new album m b v. And while Kevin Shields was perhaps using that two-decade hiatus to hone and perfect that just-right, distorted dissonance, he clearly paid no heed to the simple metrics of internet bandwidth—the site crashed as thousands clambered to be the first to hear it, tweet about it and live blog it. It was indicative of modern-day media consumption: people now strive to be the first and loudest authority on just about everything.
The weekend’s other big moment was the debut of House of Cards, online streaming service Netflix’s first venture into original content creation. Much like Shields and co., the bigwigs at Netflix dropped the whole season in one unceremonious dump, allowing their viewers to tackle it however they saw fit, be it an episode a night, one a week or the ‘cancel my plans, put on a gallon of coffee and give my eyes the Ludovico technique’ approach. Naturally, many people took the latter option with a reported 28% gunning through the entire season in the first weekend. It shouldn’t really be any surprise. This has been common practice ever since we first heard whispers of ‘Omar’s coming yo!’ and rumours of a television show even more addictive than the 99.1% pure blue crystal meth it portrays.
It’s been dubbed binge-watching, or occasionally, ‘Just one more!‘: the act of forgoing the usual week-to-week following of a show for massive ingestion through DVD box-sets and, more commonly now, online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go. It’s something we’ll all do at some stage. I’m no different: on finally getting my hands on Season 5 of The Wire, I intravenously hooked up like Barney Gumble with a lifetime supply of Duff beer and downloaded it into my brain in an almost hallucinatory ten-hour session. I now remember nothing of it, save the odd major plot points. And I guess that’s the point about binge-watching: it’s like reading a novel in bullet point form – you get the plot but maybe not the context. So maybe it’s time we just chilled a bit, took our time and realised that these shows aren’t a race.
For the past fifteen years, we’ve been living in a golden age of television. Beginning in 1999 with The Sopranos — although arguably starting with HBO’s first original drama, the shank-happy Oz — the TV-loving public has been consistently fed creative and innovative programming the likes of which we had never experienced. Upstart cable networks in the US delivered what networks had wanted to for years, but couldn’t for fear of advertisers bailing: serialised shows that broke away from the episodic nature of the established order and brought us characters and stories we’d never seen before. A family of funeral directors dealing with the death of their patriarch. A mob boss in therapy. The decay of a modern American city dressed as a police procedural. School teachers peddling meth and manhood in the recession era.
So we’ve been served up pan-seared, oven-roasted filet mignon every week, and we’re scoffing it down like a second round of taco fries in Supermacs at some ungodly hour of a Saturday. Come on, people. Take your time. Talk to anyone who mainlines TV hard and they’ll inevitable tell you that, ‘all the best writers are in telly’. They may be right, but guess what, the same might be said of directors. Hollywood has just been lining up to get on cable; Scorsese’s done Boardwalk Empire; director of Looper, Rian Johnson is frequently calling the shots on Breaking Bad; and David Fincher led the directorial charge on House of Cards along with James Foley and erm, Joel Schumacher. Also, save bagging a role in franchise surrounding a drunken pirate who gains superpowers and falls in love with a brooding teen vampire, TV has been the best meal ticket around with big stars and terrific character actors all getting in on the action. What began as golden is surely triple-platinum by now.
Bingeing kind of takes the fun out of TV too, you know, like talking about it? Social media has added to the conversation with a myriad of recaps, podcasts and liveblogging of just what Lena Dunham’s perpetual nudity on Girls means about the modern day, mid-twenties hipster. It’s an extension of the insanely dense pub hypotheses about Skinner Boxes and salient electromagnetic anomalies on Lost that has us on frenzied, all-night message board scours like a pop culture Woodward and Bernstein. Ultimately, those conversations turned out to be far more entertaining, and arguably coherent, than what we were presented with.
That well of shows may be starting to run dry — Breaking Bad concludes this year, Mad Men the year after — so please, relax, stop and take time to smell the new Porsche, acid bath and wildfire burning. It may not happen tomorrow, or even in the next year, but a time is coming where this gold rush of shows will be gone and all we might be left with is cheap Homeland imitations, or, God forbid, Homeland.