Why do we binge some TV and not other TV?
There are few things this year that I have anticipated more than "Sense8," the new Netflix series by J. Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis. Meanwhile, at the start of this year, I still hadn't seen a single episode of "Orange Is The New Black."
So why is it that I burned through season three of Jenji Kohan's prison series, and I have the entire run of "Sense8," minus the first episode, still sitting there in my Netflix queue waiting for the exact right moment?
Binge watching has become a cultural force over the last few years, but I would argue that it really became a thing with the rise of DVD. One of the things my wife and I used to do together was burn through shows that she had missed or never had an opportunity to see growing up in Argentina. When I was flipping out about the oncoming next-to-last season of "The Sopranos," she decided to catch up, and I was more than happy to run back through everything at a gallop with her. If anything, it reminded me why I loved the show, and it got me even more excited to see the wrap-up take place. We also spent time together watching old favorites of mine as they came out in box sets. I would have revisited "Soap" no matter what, but watching it with someone who had never seen it, gulping it down a disc at a time, made me love it in a whole new way.
When I watched the first episode of "Sense8," it was the exact moment the show went online. I spent the entire evening refreshing, waiting for it to arrive, and I thought that first episode was enormously promising, a cross between "Cloud Atlas" and "Scanners," and I loved the way it looked like Straczynski and the Wachowskis were embracing the freedom of Netflix, shaking off any thought of ratings or restriction.
But one of the things I immediately realized is that there's a density to the storytelling that demands my actual attention, and binge watching is not always about me paying close attention to something. Sometimes, I'll binge watch something while I'm working precisely because it allows me to tune in and tune out at will. I've used shows I'm familiar with already like "The West Wing" or the old Adam West "Batman" or "That '70s Show" in bulk to allow myself something comfortable while I'm working on something else. I like the sounds of these shows I love, and I binge watch them because they offer up a familiar rhythm.
When it comes to new programming, though, there are several different ways now for us to digest things. For a long time, I've been completely free of cable service, and it's led to me really thinking about how I want to process things, how I want to enjoy these narratives. Something like "Game Of Thrones" seems designed to be seen week to week, and part of the experience for me is watching it the moment I can watch it, then having a week to think about it and imagine what's next and enjoy the horrible games the showrunners play with the audience. When they released "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" this spring, I didn't mean to watch them all in two days. It just happened because I realized just how much I wanted to feel that particular pleasure all at once, like eating an entire pint of ice cream that you can't stop eating, no matter how much you mean to. Binge watching is often more about the way a show makes you feel and less about the particulars of the story being told. Something like "Bloodline" is very good, very well-made, and beautifully performed, but it is also a giant glass of bummer, and I don't think I could do more than two episodes of the series in a row. While "Daredevil" is dour, it was one of those shows that made it feel urgent to keep things playing, one right after another, and the way it came together at the end of the season rewarded that deep drink, both in the way it painted Wilson Fisk as an unusually bruised Marvel villain but in the way it finally gave us the Daredevil it had built to for the full season.
Netflix is the undisputed master of binge programming right now, but not every single show ends up working right in that particular way. I didn't watch the first two seasons of "Orange Is The New Black" when they were released, and I'm not sure why. I was a big fan of the first few years of "Weeds," and I like Jenji Kohan's approach to character. I think she's a really interesting writer, and I certainly planned to get around to watching "Orange" at some point. I just… didn't. Even when I dated someone briefly last year and she binged on season two, it didn't end up becoming a priority. I think I put it off at that point because I didn't want to have to race through season one before trying to catch up. I felt like I was behind and didn't see how I'd catch up in time to enjoy it. When I decided that I was going to be part of the conversation this time around, I tried watching the first few episodes, and that's all it took. Kohan built a show that juggled enough storylines, and with enough energy, that it was almost impossible to watch just one. It was designed to lay one hook after another in the audience, and each season is built with its own sets of gains and set-backs for the characters. By the time they released the third season, I didn't even hesitate. Just jumped right in and tore right through the whole thing. The season closes in such a celebratory manner that it feels like a reward for viewers who down it all at once, a touchdown dance in the end zone of a genuinely great show that wants you to watch it in one sustained sprint.
I'll get to "Sense8." I really will. And when I do, it may well end up being something that picks up speed as I go, and I may binge it. Or I may chip away one small piece at a time, savoring each and digesting it before moving on. And I may never go in and watch that third season of "House Of Cards." But what's clear is that the binge is now a very real part of my media diet, and not just mine. What is also clear is that the binge will only be one part of my media diet, and never the entire thing.