Netflix and Change
By Amanda Rossenrode
I remember first hearing about Netflix in the far off-time of the mid-2000’s. It was a strange time. People carried flip-phones and televisions were square. Mine was anyway, because I was poor. Bryan Cranston was still pretty much “the dad from Malcolm in the Middle who’s on a new show in his underwear” and not the immortal deity he has since become. We hadn’t totally gotten over emo yet.Thank the sweet Lord Cranston you children were not around during these archaic times.
Back then, after the mules and sheep were penned for the evening, we would sit before our cube-shaped televisions and watch reruns of Law and Order, because television was abhorrent in those days. Sitcoms were about loud-voiced unfunny men and their hot shrewish wives. There were 47 separate versions of CSI and a bunch of reality shows about shellacked goblins falling in love with a slack-jawed troll. The only other place was a “video store”: a battlefield strewn with corpses, where relationships went to die, with the last words on their frothing lips being, “….I can’t believe you said that about Predator…”
When Netflix first appeared on the scene it was an online video store that took some of the violence out of the situation. Moreover, you could rate movies and the system would actually suggest titles to you. Well, we all denounced this as witchcraft and burned every computer in town. When calm returned (and a measure of grief, because some of us had forgotten to update our MySpace pages before the compu-bonfire), we realized this was a neat technology. So Netflix murdered all the video stores and became emperor of rainy Thursday nights.
But the mighty ruler did not stop there. Streaming, once an annoying combination of being a goody-two-shoes and paying for and downloading a movie over the course of three days, or being Blackbeard and straight up pirating The Sopranos (which turned out to be a men’s choir practice video), became an easy way to watch all the episodes of Everyone Loves Raymond you wanted. In a smooth move, breakout shows on smaller cable channels put their back episodes on Netflix, so you could finally get that dude from work off your back and just try Breaking Bad already.
Back in the Dark Time, if you did not have HBO or Showtime (or whatever the malformed step-sibling that was Starz!) in order to catch up on their critically acclaimed lineup, you would need to invest large amounts of money in buying the seasons on DVD. With Netflix hosting critical and cult darlings like Breaking Bad and Arrested Development, people could spend entire bouts of the flu becoming fans of the shows and gearing up for the next season. Original programming like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards informed us that the way we watched TV had changed forever.
Binge-watching became a word. In my eyes, this is a bit of an ethical dilemma. Should one binge watch? Did the creator of the show intend you to watch an entire season in a weekend? If they did, does it hurt the show or help it? Newer shows have jumped on the bandwagon and made their shows palatable in large doses, but shows pre-2012 don’t hold up as well.
In the traditional format of TV, seasons have hiatuses a few times a year. Before a break, a show would usually pose a cliffhanger to keep you wondering: is that character dead/pregnant/marrying that person??? The show resumes and the issue is resolved (no), and then there’s a couple placeholder episodes to hold you until they start the next arc. Binge-watching a series aired in that format feels cheap. There is no suspense because the question is answered within minutes. Often times it can tarnish the characters in the eyes of the viewer, as they seemingly get over emotional trauma in minutes, painting them as cold and shallow. I watched a season finale of a character leaving their fiancé at the alter and in the next episode they were going on a road trip. “How callous not to deal with that!” I thought indignantly. For the writers of the show, that was the end of that storyline and the beginning of a new season. Having no beat in between, it just seemed cruel and unfeeling to me.
New shows understand that a vast part of their audience will binge-watch their show. In a recent episode of The Walking Dead (skip this if you’re not caught up) ,Glenn seemed to have died. We all screamed in protest and then got on the Internet and theorized that he was alive. Expecting an answer in the next episode, we all tuned into an hour and a half of the Zodiac Killer giving the Mr. Miyagi treatment to a crazy Morgan. Not that it wasn’t a pretty awesome episode, but they understood that the suspense would not be there for the binge-watching audiences. If they watched Glenn die and then five minutes later he’s eating a PB&J sandwich sighing, “That was close and improbable, wasn’t it?”, it would feel like a let-down.
Okay, you can come back now, people not caught up on the The Walking Dead. People swear up and down that they can watch Arrested Development for hours on end, but if you do, I don’t think you’re watching it right. That show is as dry and subtle as a cracker that fell behind the bookcase. It's not a show you can mindlessly watch and still recognize the humor. After about an hour, when you’re furiously updating your Facebook with pictures of your Stouffer’s frozen lasagna, you’re missing key jokes that set up other jokes and then more jokes in later episodes.
Shows like Community and The Simpsons (which proudly lack continuity or profound arcs), sketch shows like Portlandia, or even Monster-of-the-Week shows like Law and Order and The X-Files, do well binge-watched. You can pick up and leave off wherever you like. A twenty-episode season is going to falter because quirky characters get grating and storylines progress slower. Netflix has changed the way shows put out their seasons--shorter, faster, to the point--because when you’re on the couch, un-showered, on a Sunday night at 8:30 with a plethora of congealing Chinese food around you, an episode about the Khaleesi getting a bad haircut while Little Finger can’t decide which wench to take to the ball is a waste of your precious, precious time.
That can be unfortunate though. More episodes give writers and actors time to create iconic characters and shows. What may feel like a “time-wasting” episode might be a well of comedic or dramatic gold that lets the creators tell you a little more about the characters’ more dormant sides. Or give a background character a moment to shine. It worked well in traditional format, giving the viewer a breather in between arcs, but the binge-watching audience leans towards impatience with these types of episodes, criticizing them as slow and unnecessary. Are we children being served pot roast and screaming for McDonalds? It seems we have forgotten the bologna sandwich era of network television. Anyone remember “Perfect Strangers?”
Is writing shows around binge-watching a passing craze like Tamagotchis or Ryan Gosling? Does binge-watching alienate first-time viewers from great older shows that don’t hold up to the trend? Is Ryan Gosling sad that his moment in the sun is passing? Does he want to come over to my house and watch Netflix and chill? Let me know. Especially if you’re Ryan Gosling.