Last night, my wife and I watched the fifth episode of True Detective, which means that we’re officially caught up with the show, if only for a few days. This is something of an accomplishment for me, as it’s the first time I’ve been caught up on a scripted TV show since I stopped watching 24, midway through the fourth season.
That’s right. Since then, I’ve been “behind” on pretty much every show I’ve dedicated myself to watching. Now, the modern answer to that “problem” is binge watching. Binge watching, the act of consuming entire seasons of television shows in days or weeks instead of months or years, is the fast and trendy way to catch up on serialized dramas that make up most of the best TV shows today.
I don’t like binge watching TV. By condensing the post-viewing refractory period of a TV show from seven days down to the time it takes to make a snack, I diminish my ability to absorb each episode. In The Talking Room, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan said the best thing TV has going for it is that you have a hundred hours to develop characters, learn their nuances, and tell their stories. I say if you blast through those episodes too quickly, you won’t have time to appreciate that effort.
In the days after I watched the fourth episode of True Detective, I re-watched the final six minutes at least four or five times. The first time I watched to ensure I hadn’t missed any plot points or dialog. The second time I watched the actors, to see how they handled such a long, elaborate scene. The third time I watched the camera movements and the location, to figure out the mechanics of the shoot. The fourth time I just watched the scene again, marveling at all the pieces that had to come together perfectly during what had to be a challenging location shoot. And for the fifth viewing? I watched it one more time after I’d read a couple of articles explaining how they accomplished the whole thing and why it worked. That step over the fence still blows my mind.
For a handful of days, I spent considerable time thinking about one incredible moment of television. I watched that episode the day after the next episode aired. I could have literally rolled straight into it, traveling back into Louisiana and letting the plot wash over me. But if I had, I likely would have been too obsessed trying to figure out the secret of the Yellow King to consider the accomplishment that was the previous episode.
When I encounter something that is as carefully constructed as True Detective is, whether it's a TV show, a book, a videogame, or a movie, I like to take my time with it. The way I see it, you only get to experience that work for the first time once. To me, each episode of a show like True Detective is something to be cherished. Each episode deserves time to live in my head. To do less is not only a disservice to myself, it feels disrespectful to the show's creators--they put thousands of man hours into making one hour of television. Blasting through the episodes simply to see what happens at the end just feels wrong to me.
If I was going to make a bad analogy now, I'd say that binge watching is like putting a drive-through window in an art museum. Sure the window would allow more patrons to appreciate the art in a quick, convenient context, without the opportunity to internalize the experience. Lucky for you, I'm going to skip the analogy and just tell you about the time I ruined Lost by binge watching it instead.
When Lost arrived on Netflix, my wife and I sat down to watch the series. By the end of the fourth episode, I was utterly sick of the show. Condensing Lost magnified the show’s flaws and exposed too much of its structure; the plot twists felt ludicrous and arbitrary instead of carefully constructed and mysterious. The characters felt vapid and worthy of disdain instead of interesting and relatable. Lost would have been better with more time between episodes, so I could forget the small things that annoyed me and focus on the things that intrigued me.
I ruined Breaking Bad with binge watching too. Watching episodes back-to-back ratcheted the tension up too high. After watching two seasons of the show in as many weeks, I was emotionally exhausted and needed a break. I literally couldn’t take it. Without enough time to recover between episodes, the highs and the lows of the show started to even out and the tension made me dread watching the next episode. I realized I wasn't enjoying myself anymore, and just quit.
And while I'm on the subject, the season-ending cliffhanger has been completely devalued by binge watching. I spent the best part of the summer of 1990 wondering how the crew of the Enterprise would be able to defeat the Borg and rescue Picard after watching The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1. When you load The Next Generation on Neflix, you can watch those episodes back-to-back. On second thought, maybe that isn't a bad idea. As 90 minutes of Star Trek, I bet The Best of Both Worlds holds up better than most Trek feature films.
There are a few other places that binge watching is OK. Binging It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Archer helped me get through the sleepless nights that marked the first three months of my daughter's life. Both are fabulous shows, and I don't feel like I missed out on much by watching episodes back-to-back-to-back. Watching that much Always Sunny almost certainly made me a worse human being, but I still consider it time well spent.
That’s why I've stopped binge watching TV. What do you think? Am I a Luddite for eschewing a modern convenience or is binge-watching the fast food of the TV world? Have I stepped into "Get off my lawn" territory? Rest assured that while you're posting in the comments below, I'll be catching up on Mad Men the best way I know how, one episode every four days.