The case against binge television

More to talk about with time

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Official Netflix Facebook Page

By James Mazarakis, Op/Ed Editor

Remember “Lost,” that show about the survivors of a plane crash on a deserted island?

It wasn’t the best show in television history, but I remember J.J. Abram’s early trailblazer for its intimate character building, slow and meticulous plot development, and intriguing mysteries surrounding the island and the people stranded there. Yes, there would be boring episodes and scenes worthy of scrapping, but viewers learn to appreciate the gaps in between the action and enjoy the banter, side plots and flashbacks that explore the nuances of each character.

Meanwhile, modern-day productions have little time for those in-between details. Netflix’s “End of the F*cking World” manages to tell the story of renegades James and Alyssa in eight 20- to 30-minute episodes — and to the creators’ credit, they do a brilliant job of painting these characters in spite of the series’ brevity. I enjoy shows like these, but I finish them feeling like something is missing.

The trademark of streaming technology, the fall of cable and rise of “binge TV” culture has been this: concentrated films chopped up into small parts and called television. It’s not a surprising trend. Young people are busy and worldwide attention spans are shortening, changing the demands associated with television.

An unfortunate side effect is that the social capital around television shows is reduced. Instead of having a week between episodes to talk about the latest developments, viewers usually talk about a television show right after they’ve devoured a whole season. Moreover, television has become so digestible that there isn’t much to talk about. Shock value, likeable characters and succinct storylines are king in this day and age, and while I appreciate the products, it misses the best parts of television.

So, what makes television unique? Each episode can be a window into a situation, character or theme that might be overlooked in a feature film. Seasons can have an overarching plot while episodes have the freedom to veer into unexpected or even unrelated corners. When done well, the incremental building of plot creates suspense and tension that begs the viewer to contemplate, theorize and make bets about the future of the series.

This should be all too familiar to anyone who trudged through eight seasons “Game of Thrones” while it was on air. Every Monday in spring, casual and serious fans alike would chatter about the latest episode: What went down? What will happen next? Who will sit on the Iron Throne? Will Arya finish her kill list? Will Brandon ever serve a purpose? These gripping questions led to wild theories and arguments that would make people out of the loop scratch their heads.

Yet it was in these intimate, almost academic conversations that made “Game of Thrones” worth following despite its unreliable quality. Had the producers dumped whole seasons out at once, those magical moments would have never existed.

Thus, the practice of delivering full seasons at once dulls the conversation around shows. Without the week-by-week development offered by scheduled broadcasts, it’s easy for viewers to forget all about the characters and plot — until the next season drops, that is.

To be clear, I don’t think streaming has killed television outright. Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Amazon Prime’s “The Boys” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” are great examples of television that create buzz and deliver content that is enjoyable and makes viewers think.

Nevertheless, these shows ended up sacrificing quantity. For example, throughout three seasons and 24 episodes, there has only been about 21 screen time hours of “Stranger Things”. This sounds like a lot, but it’s got nothing on some pre-Netflix giants: the first three seasons of “Lost”, for example, constitute 72 45-minute episodes — over two days of content. In fact, the number of episodes per season across all of television has declined from a steady 22 to lows of eight or even six over the last twenty years.

I appreciate the desire to get to the point, but one of my pet peeves is when a decent show disappoints by not digging into the characters’ backstories and motivations, or worse, failing to give the viewer time to develop a sense of care for the characters before they attempt meaningful plot developments.

There are plenty of reasons why television has changed. Competition is stark with producers undertaking ambitious and expensive concepts that need to stack up against dozens, if not hundreds, of other excellent shows. Actors are hard to catch and sometimes resist signing on for longer seasons. Finally, there is a decent argument that the freedom given to streaming producers allows them to tell the story at the pace they want, not using an artificial, stretched-out timeline established by networks.

Even still, I cherish the few series out there bold enough to push for 13 or more episodes. While others rush to consume whole seasons the day they are released, I find myself waiting days or even a full week before continuing the next episode of my current obsession just to give myself time to ponder. Not every show has to be this way, but I think it’s the way television should be: slow, involved and episodes for days.

James Mazarakis is the Op/Ed Editor and can be reached at [email protected] or @dailyjmaz on Twitter.