A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture

TV Binge
Michael Z. Newman / University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The Fischer family of HBO\'s Six Feet Under

The Fisher family of HBO’s Six Feet Under

We watched Six Feet Under for an episode or two when it began in 2001. I was put off by its inconsistent tone and wasn’t sure I was up for a show in which someone dies every week. Years later, long after it had established a wide and passionate following and run its final episode, we began to watch Six Feet Under again and this time we pretty much couldn’t stop.

The show follows the Fisher family, their employees and friends and lovers, across five cable-size seasons: sixty episodes, fifty hours of drama. The characters grow and change, they have relationships and marry and have children, new characters are introduced while old ones are forgotten. As befits a shows set in a funeral home, some of the most (and least) beloved characters die. It took the original audience more than five years to see all of this play out. They had to wait a week for each new episode and endure months of hiatus between seasons. By contrast, we watched in two sustained bursts of viewing first in the summer of 2008, while much of the schedule was filled with junk, and then in the early winter of 2008 and 2009 after the November sweeps period again ushered in a period of reruns and specials. We binged.

As much as any narrative medium, television affords intense engagement with characters. We get to know the people on the screen so intimately that they become our TV friends. Sometimes we know them better than our real-life friends, because we get so much insight into their psychology, their secrets, their hopes and fears and dreams. Spending years with characters, they become regular visitors to our living rooms, like pals we see week after week at the same hangout. Binging intensifies the pleasure of this engagement by making characters all the more present in our lives. The relationship becomes more like a passionate but doomed affair, a whirlwind that enlivens us so well for a time, only to leave us empty and lost when it sadly, inevitably, ends.

Binging isn’t new. As a kid I watched my favorite shows several times a day for years. But the fact that I could binge on a show like Six Feet Under is certainly a product of its historical context. We watched the show on DVD, programming our revival at our pleasure. This kind of viewing experience emphasizes the serial nature of a soapy show such as SFU, reproducing the daily rhythms of daytime drama with content originally intended to be seen weekly.

Binging also makes one more conscious of the season as a narrative unit. Shorter seasons and long hiatuses between them encourage viewers of original cable shows to see the season as a meaningful narrative category. So of course do DVD sets. When we watched The Wire we would near the end of a season and go online for our “re-up” (Baltimore slang for a fresh shipment of heroin) of a new season to have ready when we would be. A season of twelve or thirteen episodes can more naturally be constructed as a coherent story, and viewing those twelve or thirteen hours over the course of a week or two (or less) shows off this unity.

The Wire

Students from HBO’s fourth season of The Wire

The shows I binged on as a kid were programs like Three’s Company that aired in the hours between school and dinner. They are episodic rather than serial. Often the episodes were rerun in a different order from their original airing, though I do recall the sitcoms of my childhood progressing year by year, so that you would see a few months of Chrissie episodes of Three’s Company followed by a brief stint of Cindy episodes, and then a few months of Terri episodes only to return to the early Chrissie seasons. Other than these cast changes, the binging Three’s Company viewer would have scant awareness of the sequencing of episodes. I certainly never had any idea when a season of the show was beginning or ending. Each episode tells its own story and the viewer doesn’t need to have seen the earlier ones to get the later ones. But watching all of a serial drama like SFU on a binge is like tearing through a thick novel in a week at the beach. It’s all one story, and even though episodes and seasons resolve at their conclusions in some respects, as a viewer you always find yourself in the middle.

Other things we have watched this way were similarly soapy in their narrative form. We often binge on the first season or two of a show to catch up when critics and friends tell us we’re missing something good. “Quality TV” these days demands a completist mandate: start at the beginning. This first happened for us with The Sopranos. Battlestar Galactica was another. I find now that I liked BSG much more during our early-seasons binge, when I could better keep its complicated story straight. Long breaks between seasons make it harder for me to remember the situation, the stakes, the state of characters’ relationships with one another. The experience of the first two seasons was so vivid from binging that the subsequent ones have made less of an impression, and my enthusiasm for BSG has diminished.

Battlestar Galactica

The cast of Sci-Fi’s Battlestar Galactica

No matter the format of a show, watching on a binge intensifies the continuity of character arcs. Shows that are hybrids of episodic and serial narrative forms like Degrassi: The Next Generation and Judging Amy seem more serialized when viewed in heavy regular doses. The Wire, which has fairly self-contained season-long arcs with strong thematic and narrative unity and coherence, starts to seem more like five volumes of one big book (e.g., Proust’s In Search of Lost Time) than like a series of novels with continuing characters (e.g., the crime novels of the show’s writers Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos).

This new kind of binging further removes us from the conditions that obtained for television viewing for many decades. The DVD frees us from the program schedule and the flow of content, which in many cases includes commercials, promos, and idents, as does watching with the aid of a DVR or iTunes or BitTorrent. The new technologies that give viewers the agency to program their own media mark a shift from ephemeral to collectible content. TV shows and movies are now more like books: you can own or borrow copies of them, use them whenever you like, and keep them on a shelf as an advertisement of your taste.

Something is lost in this process, and we should be wary of accepting this new way of viewing as an evolutionary step. In some ways, binging feels unnatural. Watching this way, we lose our connection to the larger viewing audience as community and to the temporality of broadcasting that unites a program with the moment of its airing. (Viewers still get this experience from sports and reality TV and news and talk shows — from genres of programming inimical to binging.) We also lose a significant aesthetic effect of the weekly rhythm of the prime-time serial. It’s hard to be specific about what this means, but it’s a function of how we appreciate a show that airs once a week, and takes a break of a few months between seasons — what we pay attention to, how it makes an impression on us, and how the interval of time between episodes and seasons encourages us to talk and think about the characters and their situations in the space between installments of their story. Binging makes the experience of television more intense and personal. It can feel like too much of a good thing, and maybe it is.

Image Credits:

1. The Fisher family of HBO’s Six Feet Under
2. Students from HBO’s fourth season of The Wire
3. The cast of Sci-Fi’s Battlestar Galactica

Comments

  • Annie said:

    Fantastic article, Michael — and something I’ve been thinking about for a few months now.

    I’m fascinated by binging “schedules” — who binges and why. Graduate students binge as “research”; it also seems less daunting than watching an entire moving, or at least more “excusable” to take 60 minutes (plus 60, and oh, maybe, just another 60) from your reading schedule than admitting you’re watching an entire movie. I also think we, in our mostly solitary existences, binge a bit more intensely. When you have no responsibilities to partner (who may not like the show) or child, it’s just you and the cast of, say, True Blood. When you mentioned that it took two weeks to go through a season of The Wire, for example, I felt proud AND sheepish about going through Season 4 in 3 days.

    But what about the dirty underbelly of binging? I’m curious about the word choice, because it implies that a.) it is, indeed, shadowed with shame, but also b.) there would be an accompanying “purge.” Is that when the viewer gets burnt out and gives up on a show, when perhaps he/she wouldn’t if watching on a more “normal pace?

    I do, however, want to challenge this idea that the “temporality that unites a program with the moment of its airing” exists with cable/premium television, let alone is something we should endeavor to protect. How many of us, even lucky HBO subscribers, view the show when it aired? Even if you do have HBO, most people I know watch it On Demand or on DVR. Of course, broadcast shows seem to still form a pull on an audience, especially those on which audiences have purged to bring themselves up to speed (Lost, of course.) But doesn’t the notion of an “audience” watching a show at once place a premium on a U.S. experience of that show?

    Finally, you also mention that the “natural” rhythms of a show (breaks between episodes, between seasons) promote contemplation. I agree. But they also reify television “as television.” I’m going on a limb here, but part of the reason so many of us burgeoning television scholars, some of us formerly firmly invested in film, have ventured into television is the semblance that the binged text takes to an (admittedly very long) movie. Beautiful production values, high narrative quality and complexity……. Of course, I’m not saying that more traditional flows of television are not worthy of study or preservation — just that there’s something behind the way that these shows are viewed, and the way that we’ve been writing about them, that seems to blur the line between film and television, and that’s something we need to think more about.

  • Jonathan Gray said:

    Nice column, Mike. I’d like to add two other instances of binging to the mix (or, given the eating conceit, perhaps it’s “the swill”?): (1) binging on a medium, and (2) binging as background. I, for instance, am a medium binger — I’ll be a cinephile for a month or two, or even a year, and then have a year like this last one in which my Top 10 is pretty much the only 10 films I saw (some on planes, no less). Given your argument about the shifting and intensifying contexts, I wonder how that affects the medium binge (when, for instance, on a game binge, one inevitably draws more parallels to the many other games in the swill at the moment, or when the film binge brings many more visual references and comparisons to light). As for the “binge as background,” I think of Law and Order or CSI marathons, or sitcom marathons, that may well be watched closely by some, but that also lend themselves to being used by others as wallpaper in a living room, due in part to the lack of difference in genre, volume, characters, or style that might make one look up for longer. There, perhaps we’re dealing with the opposite of “intensification,” as they all blend together into a rather uninspired backdrop for doing something more interesting?

    I like Annie’s provocation, too, for us to think about the metaphor of binging itself, especially inasmuch as we might think of different “metabolisms.”

    Thanks to you both

  • Colin Tait said:

    I wonder if I could add that the availability and the `quality`of television these days – as opposed to the successes of reality TV and the popularity of films like Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Paul Blart: Mall Cop – makes it all the more appealing for binging material, as opposed to seeing something that you don`t or won`t like. I can`t help but ask what degree word of mouth and the cultural distinction of binging has on particular shows after their first on-air run.

    On the other hand, my old habits of watching 6 hours of TV that I have no commitment to (which explains why I have seen many shows that I don`t remember liking) have been replaced by the efficient practice of watching a couple of episodes of a specific show within the time I would have normally channel surfed and watched nothing in particular. I have noticed the intensification that binging brings where where characters who are annoying become too annoying, and plotlines that you might have formerly forgiven stick out to you in different ways (and here I’m thinking of Weeds, Heroes and Lost).

    At any rate, love the article, love the metaphor, and love that I have an official term for what I do.

  • Jason Mittell said:

    I’ll add to the affirmations – excellent discussion of the pleasures and hangovers of binging. I’ve had two bad binge experiences lately that add to the dialogue: the first season of Dexter, which was great, but a bit much to process in 5 days! I kept getting flashes of little boy Dexter’s childhood trauma – I want to watch the next season, but am wary of flashbacks.

    The second speaks to the rhythm – we binged on season 2 of Friday Night Lights recently, in anticipation of season three’s NBC debut. The viewing itself was great, but the lack of a gap between seasons 2 and 3 was problematic, as s3 reset the narrative terrain too much for bingers. I’m thinking that TV producers should include liner notes recommending how they envision a series might best be viewed – with gaps, via binging, etc.

  • Michael Z. Newman said:

    Thanks for all of these comments. I hadn’t intended “binge” to evoke eating necessarily, though I certainly had that in mind. One also can binge on drink or drugs, or any indulgent behavior. The point is that the binge is intemperate. We trade an intense, immediate pleasure for the later consequences.

    @Jonathan, I always wonder how people watch marathons. My own experience is casual rather than intense. “Marathon” suggests endurance rather than indulgence, and watching the marathon as it airs means submitting to the schedule rather than programming your own viewing. It seems almost masochistic, whereas the binges I’m talking about are pleasure sprees.

    @Jason, I like your point about FNL. I prefer s3 to s2 (we have DirecTV), but I see that this is a more likely response when viewing at the pace set by the networks.

  • John V. said:

    Mike-

    I try to watch all my shows this way. I got through the entire Wire series in two, two week marathons separated by two months because of difficulty, ahem, finding the remaining seasons for free.

  • Tiff said:

    Thanks for the interesting column. There are several instances that come to mind when I think about tv binging but since several of them were brought up in earlier comments I will go with one that hasn’t been mentioned yet: the more and more common occurrence of tv shows like Top Chef (or really anything on bravo) and movies on TBS that air repeatedly over a span an evening. Do people watch the same episode three times in a row (like watching the mini marathon leading up to the new episode and then watching it several times in a row) or is it for the people who miss it the first (or second time) and still want to watch it on the night it premiered? In what ways does the airing of episodes back to back (to back) relate to the growing popularity of binging on tv?

  • Daniel Marcus said:

    Nice article, Mike. For further discussion of some of these issues, check out my pieces, Stripping, Parts 1 and 2, on Flow 3:8 and 3:12. And then FLOW readers can decide – is it binging or bingeing?

  • Wes Kayne said:

    First, this is a very interesting article, and i was drawn to it as this is something i have suffered many a time.

    Like the other person in this forum, I recently binged on Dexter (the first and second season). My friends told me that i had to watch this show and that they had both seasons on DVD here. So, i gave it a shot. The problem with most serial shows is how addicting they are. I watched one episode with them and I thought it was fantastic. So, what ends up happening? I love the show….all the episodes are in front of me. Naturally, we kept watching episodes. It’s hard for me to decide what side I am on. I admit that i loved beeing able to see all the episodes one after the other. It kept me up to date with the show and made it easier for me to trace character development and better appreciate the conflicts at hand. But, we all know what happens. We power through all the episodes until we reach the end. Watching one after another originally made the experience more fulfilling, but it sets us up for a huge downfall when the season ends. I think the word we all use when this comes up is “emptiness”. We are so used to having more more more, that we don’t know what to do when we run out.

    Then, there is the problem of availability. I remember when my two friends and i shot through the first two seasons of Dexter in less than two weeks, I was discouraged by the end of the story line. A few minutes after the final episode ended, one of my friends said “So have you seen Lost?” I decided to save myself and not get hooked on that yet, but the point is that there seems to be a never ending supply of shows to switch our binging to. Let’s say I want to get into Lost, i have a few solid months (or less) with my schedule planned. We have reached the point in our society where enough good television has aired that we can sit back and enjoy the past at light speed instead of waiting each week. Personally, I think it is an issue with American impatience. We want everything, and we want it now. Fast food, fast cars, fast internet, fast life. If it’s not ready, we move on.

    As satisfying as binging on shows can be, I believe it to be a highly destructive process that takes on a roller coaster from extreme fascination to emptiness. It teaches us to give up on patience and constantly switch our focus from one story line to another. What’s funny is how quickly we can move from one set of family and friends to another. One week, I’m marveling at the psychology behind Dexter Morgan, the next week I’m spending my nights guessing exactly how Matthew Fox’s character on Lost became who he is. We are a serial society.

  • Michael Z. Newman said:

    @Dan, thanks for the tip. Your two columns really illustrate for me some significant differences between binging on episodic and serial shows. Much of what you describe in relation to Taxi, Rockford Files, and L&O is heightened awareness of details you might not otherwise notice. With shows like BSG and SFU, it’s more a matter (for me anyway) of intensification of emotional investment in character.

    More old Flow columns about binge viewing worth revisiting are Amanda Lotz, “Rethinking Meaning Making: Watching Serial TV on DVD” and Jason Mittell, “Exchanges of Value” , about watching Veronica Mars downloaded via BitTorrent.