Streaming Guides · TV

Does Binging TV Undermine Its Purpose?

By  · Published on January 3rd, 2017

Dear FSR

Binging changes what makes shows…well, shows.

At some point in your life, you’ve likely been faced with a question that has no solid answer. Some people may take such a puzzle to a trusted confidant, a friendly pastor, or the esteemed annals of Yahoo! Answers. But will they have the expertise needed to solve your most pressing film predicaments?

Think of Dear FSR as an impartial arbiter for all your film concerns. Boyfriend texting while you’re trying to show him your most precious Ozu? What’s the best way to confront the guy who snuck that pungent curry into your cramped theater? This is an advice column for film fans, by a film fan.

Dear FSR,

I have trouble figuring out whether I want to wait until a show is over before starting it. For example, I got behind on Game of Thrones, so now I’m just waiting until the show is completely over to continue watching it. I did something similar with Breaking Bad. I waited until it was over so that I could watch it back-to-back because I can’t stand cliffhangers. People continually give me crap about this, so I’m here to ask – am I good?


Delayed Gratification In College Station

Dear Delayed,

The consumption methods of TV shows by the American people have been in flux with the introduction of what Netflix’s House of Cards creator Beau Willimon calls “concentric circles” of conversation. These circles bubble up as streaming services introduce full seasons of shows at once, encouraging people with the same proclivities as you to watch as much or as little as you’d like, then migrate towards each other for discussions.

Cut loose from the constraints of a singular viewing experience dictated by the production and distribution cycle of network TV, water-cooler television has morphed into water-bottle television where everyone drinks at their leisure and brings their consumption experience with them wherever they go. Live musical events, season finales, sports games, and political debates (to name a few) still hold sway over those aspiring to be culturally informed, but the communal experience has certainly branched to more diverse options than the weekly episode discussion.

Those haranguing you about your viewing habits likely do so because they want to involve you in their post-viewing enjoyment. Theorizing, discussion, and bonding over particularly moving episodes can’t take place when someone’s behind or, in your case, abstaining. The impetus to avoid cliffhangers invites the new frustration of spoilers. You also miss out on the built-in drama of temporally-restrained televising – getting that immediate fix to a Westworld answer offers a less rich interpersonal experience with the show. You won’t be wringing your hands with everyone else. Although, if you don’t care about that and you’re playing the long game of cultural relevancy, this isn’t a bad strategy.

Like a wedding guest waiting until everyone has served themselves at the buffet to avoid standing in line, you’ll have unfettered access to your show and a completely personal experience with it. Sui generis TV. But this changes something about the how itself, or at least what the show is to you compared to others who have watched it.

Continuing to use Westworld as an example, though you could use Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, you’ll talk about a show differently depending on how you experienced it. If you became deeply invested, tortured by the weeks between episodes, you may describe the show in terms of its plotting and twists rather than the holistic account of a day-long binger.

Creators certainly have viewing methods in mind when they write their shows. Arcs are carefully paced and metered for episodic consumption while plotlines rise and fall with a similar tempo. Writing rooms toy with emotions knowing that their twists will fester for weeks at a time – or as long as it takes to buffer the next episode on Netflix. Some aspects built into TV, like these gaps meant to let you mull things over and allow the show to seep into your consciousness – like intermissions placed in movies – and dense amounts of A- and B-plots designed to keep single episodes lively, are diminished by exerting personal viewing freedom upon them. It can replace artistic intent with convenience.

However, while there may be ideal ways to watch things, there are very few WRONG ways to watch things. Watching what you like how you like it is becoming easier and easier, which means more people will flock to art and join the community discussion. Their paces and habits may be different but that just diversifies the interpretations and enriches the long-term enjoyment of the show. Don’t let your friends or co-workers harass you. In a few years, your idiosyncrasies will make your dinner parties more interesting as you fight with guests over the value of a cliffhanger.

Yours in post-live viewing,


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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).