Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Arresting the Development of TV Binge-Watching

As the entire internet is duly aware, Netflix released new episodes of Arrested Development weekend before last. In quasi-preparation for that debut my wife and I spent many hours in the preceding weeks re-watching the first three seasons through that online provider, being reminded of how much we enjoyed it back when it first aired (even the uneven third season), getting through the original finale in the late afternoon on Memorial Day.

Between then and the next weekend we have watched... three of the new episodes. And without spoiling anything (as we've been trying that to avoid by not reading reviews yet), our impression is... it's okay, with its moments, but generally unimpressive.

I'm not sure if having binged on those first three seasons raised our expectations for the "fourth," or if we simply tried watching them at inopportune times (twice my wife and I have started to drowse during them, on a warm, sunny afternoon, after eating), or if it's still too soon for us to judge (without seeing all the new episodes yet), but I can already say it's not inspiring us to want to keep watching the way gorging on the episodes from roughly a decade ago did.

Perhaps we are watching them ten years too soon. Maybe then the single-characters-focused, overlapping narratives will seem like genius.

But not watching them all in one big viewing gulp.


In their latest podcast the Pop Culture Happy Hour crew touched on binge-watching of that and other shows, and I do think the self-contained nature of these new AD episodes makes them particularly bad for taking in all (or most) at once. When we have spent an entire weekend day feasting on a single show, it was where a serial narrative played out, with some level of cliffhanger or other compelling ending to an episode that made us want to keep going to the next (immediately available) one. Successful shows in this regard that we consumed in huge chunks (to catch up when we had not been watching from the start) were Lost and Breaking Bad. True, in part we were inspired to get current to be able to begin watching new episodes and be part of the conversation about them, so there was a bit of external pressure, but nonetheless there was internal drive provided by the entertainment of the plot and characters.

These new AD eps aren't so much so much narratives but capsules of what happened to a given character that more or less summarizes what happened to him/her after the end of the original series. There is something of leaving the character in a predicament, but given the tenor of the series (and the lack of progress suggested by the title) there's no expectation of resolution for the character (or the others); they won't get out of their circumstances, one way or another, so where the episodes leave them is simply where they will stay. It is well-suited for this Netflix model of distribution, I suppose, but we are not prepared to know how to consume that yet.

Such is the danger of being ahead of one's time.


Technically we binge-watched How I Met Your Mother's first season (when it was just starting its second season) by having to make multiple trips to Blockbuster to keep renting the VHS tapes (each cassette had only four episodes).

Yes, that show has spanned the era from when Blockbuster carried primarily videotapes through the era of DVD's replacing VHS to the era when even DVD's are on the verge of being outdated (and there aren't Blockbuster stores anymore).

Of course, what may be most amazing to people in 2013 is that HIMYM used to be so good that we'd be inspired to go get the next couple tapes after breezing through the episodes we'd seen.

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