It’s the new paradigm. That’s what they say, anyways. The pundits and critics that talk about the success of Netflix’s original programming, that is. They praise Arrested Development‘s comeback season built around the idea of binge-watching, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Each episode was never made to be consumed on its own and left to stand apart. No individual slice of the online-only season was structured to be something you would watch on its own on a weekly basis, talked about around a water cooler, and then mulled over in the hours leading up to the next piece.
Instead, they were always made to be slammed down the throat all at once, or at least as rapidly and mercilessly as possible. It needed a pace where the complex layers would be retained all at once so the jokes were set up and capitalized across episodes. It’s a format that could only exist and succeed in this future of online streaming.
It’s something that is also worth considering as Netflix’s original programming only picks up. Just two weeks ago we saw the much hyped premiere of the third season of House of Cards and last week was the series premiere of the Tina Fey-led, Ellie Kemper-starring Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
This includes five other wholly original series, a handful of continuations, and a nigh deluge of comedy specials, though that’s necessarily material to this particular discussion. And that’s not including the 34 upcoming series (among which are Daredevil, The Legend of Zelda, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).
And you can absolutely bet that all of those shows are going to buy into the flowing narrative and comedic and dramatic styles of the binge-watch. While not necessarily easier to write out such things in a protracted fashion, it is much more attractive to the writer. The idea of encapsulating self-contained stories in bottles while stacking them against other cohesive tales is, at times, restricting.
But the why is quite so important right now, if not just because the reasons can take many forms for many different creators and writers. (House of Cards creator Beau Willimon even advises against it for season three.) It’s far more interesting to look at what it does to both the show and the viewer, the most obvious of which is ditch a universal timetable for everyone that actively working on the program.
When you were “caught up” with a show on TV like The Office or Parks and Recreation, you could guarantee that no one except Amy Poehler and Miss Cleo knew more about it than you. And if you weren’t quite there, you could exist on a very obvious gradient. One week back? Two weeks back? Now, there is only done and not done.
The dichotomy is tricky because you don’t make temporal associations with plot lines. Instead, now it’s a singular flow, a dripping tap of story and characters that you can’t turn off until it’s over. You don’t make ongoing analyses of individual episodes or confer with others about theories and speculation but instead you wrap up at the end to talk big picture.
Nuance is lost in criticism. It’s an odd turn because nuance is much more manageable in this binge structure, but only from one end of the road. The small details and big swings go into your brain but come out only as a compacted, abstracted representation of the overall arc.
This also means that one of the bigger contributions an entirely connected culture has made is thrown out the window. Instead of writers responding to rising and falling ratings and maybe some fans willing to send letters and emails, they would get immediate feedback on a weekly basis of each episode through Twitter and Facebook and whatnot.
They can integrate this massively distributed and normalized system of show notes quickly. This can be dangerous, but it’s also nice to know feedback is valued. But this very obviously isn’t how Netflix operates when it throws up an entire season’s order up on a single day. (It’s even interesting that we still call them seasons when it’s more like a switch being flipped.) Its showrunners don’t even get a midseason break to reassess the current state of the show.
Filmmakers might find this structure more familiar than their television counterparts. They create their movies in a vacuum, betting against their own and their trusted circle’s opinions on their product before letting it fly free. And whether it keeps flying or crashes into the ground is mostly a singularly celebratory or catastrophic event: opening weekend.
If you remember, a whopping two percent binged all 649 minutes of season two of House of Cards last year in the first 72 hours of its release. That would have been 668,000 people back then at 33.4 millions subscribers. Then, five months later, they hit 50 million and topped off at 57.4 million by the end of the year.
Assuming that two percent figure merely held strong and didn’t increase (which it most likely did), that would mean 1,148,000 people binge-watched House of Cards this season. There is only a growing contingent of people who buy into the binge-watching strategy. It’s a discussion held many times before with even compelling and psychological arguments for it, but it’s something still worth thinking about. Are the things we lose worth the things we gain?