From Beginning to End

Life has taught me that you’re never supposed to tell young people that there is anything they are not allowed to do, since that will only increase the likelihood that they’ll do just that. And what good would it do, anyway? Moralists on both the right and the left have, not entirely unreasonably, bemoaned the present as an age of individualism and shallow materialism for decades already, so who could be surprised when they claim the right to do exactly what they fucking want? People who speak up against this run the risk of immediately getting labeled as not just completely out of step with the times, but, even worse, as a member of the aforementioned community of moralists.

And it should be said that that I usually react in a similar way to such buzz-killing sentiments; a rejectionism fueled in equal parts by child-like stubbornness and an intellectual impulse to not have other people tell me what not to do. I recognized this pattern in my own reaction to Jim Pagels’ much-discussed essay on Slate earlier this year, in which he argued against binge-watching television shows, whether it be on DVD or through streaming. Pagels rose to defend the TV series as a distinct medium, and argued that binge-watching fundamentally alters the way these shows are meant to be consumed. This has to do with plotting and storytelling, of course, but more than anything, it has to do with allowing our relationhips with central characters to develop over time. Rushing through a series robs you of the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the issues and dilemmas faced by Don Draper or Walter White, argued Pagels, and what’s worse, you could even miss out on much of the great criticism that is out there, in the form of recaps and forum discussions. He therefore advised a 24 hour window between each episode, to let the episode sink in.

His intervention became part of a long-running debate about the changing nature of television viewing, and the second wave of quality television, and he must have known that he would get severe blowback. Back in 2011, New York critic Emily Nussbaum (now at the New Yorkerraved about the experience of cracking the code to Breaking Bad through the wonders of binging, arguing the exact opposite of Pagels; that the ability to identify with and ponders the travail of the characters’ arcs actually increased through such concentrated viewing (not to mention her ability to analyze how the big picture stuff changed.) She doesn’t go into recapping, but considering another clear plus for Nussbaum was that binging allowed her to consume the show while bypassing the usual buzz and spin of water cooler conversations and spoilers, I suspect this argument would do little to sway her. Grantland had reached some of the same binge-positive conclusions about a Friday Night Lights marathon around the same time, and TIME’s TV critic weighed in by saying that Pagels’ essay was founded on the questionable premise that watching week-by-week is somehow (morally) superior to binge-watching, as well as a strategy that will make for a more rewarding experience. An early 2012 essay in Wired made the case for binge-watching by framing it as fundamentally a lonely activity, something that invites concentration and comtemplation in the same way reading a book has always done. I was intrigued by this reasoning not only because I like to do my binge-watching by myself, in order to set the right pace et cetera, but because it affords that Pagels’ understanding of what’s unique about the television series as a medium to my mind does not hold up all that well under scrutiny. Covering the Pagels-initiated debate, the Wall Street Journal spoke to programmers and neurologists about how loyalties to TV shows and characters are formed, and how this knowledge is set to change how shows are constructed.

Two weeks ago, I told myself that if I was going to write about this, I needed to test whether the allure of binge-watching a show I was unfamiliar with was as strong as many have claimed, and so I decided to watch a whole season over a short period of time. Trying to erase prior loyalty as a scientific variable (I had binged on the sixth and seventh seasons of Showtime’s addictive but by now mediocre comedy Weeds this summer, proving that old habits die hard), I decided upon the thirteen-episode first season of comedy-drama The Big C, starring Laura Linney and Oliver Platt. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, I ended the experiment firmly on the pro-binging side. Binge-watching gave me a sense of instant narrative and dramatic gratification that quickly locked me into the show.

That said, I’m not really sure how “good” The Big C actually is. The show, featuring Linney as Cathy Jamison, a teacher and mom who learns that she has interminable cancer, resembles both the best and the worst aspects of the aforementioned Weeds. With Linney in the lead, the acting is of course pitch-perfect, and much of the comedy has the bittersweet tint of early Weeds. Unfortunately, it also shares that show’s tonal inconsistency and tendency to get lost in somewhat annoying secondary characters (see: Doug Wilson on Weeds; Cathy’s brother Sean). When I’m always drawn back in, it has to do with how this whimsical storytelling style in some sense parallels Cathy’s mood swings from life-affirming optimism to despair and back again. However, the show is at its best when it dares to embrace the darkness and insecurity at its core. The knowledge that every day could be her last always lurks just beneath the surface of every scene, whether it is eventually addressed directly or not. This tension and inner turmoil lends a particular resonance to Cathy’s relationship with her good-natured but tentatively rebellious son (played by a charming Gabriel Basso).

Maybe The Big C isn’t the perfect test show for a binge-watching show, seeeing as it lacks some of the complexity of shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad (it’s also shorter). However, I still think I get what Emily Nussbaum was talking about when she wrote that her emotional and intellectual investment in the latter show was intensified by her viewing mode. This could perhaps be because my frustratingly short memory means that I have a tendency to forget central plot points mere weeks after I saw a movie or TV show, but for me, I have trouble imagining that binge-watching might somehow have reduced my ability to think critically or ponder the predicament of the show’s protagonist. Neither did it hamper my emotional investment. I have returned to it repeatedly in my mind after I stopped watching, and I can assure Jim Pagels that it’s perfectly possible to get forge an emotional bond in a matter of a few intense hours. I even have the season finale tear-stains to prove it.

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1 Response to From Beginning to End

  1. Leta Blake says:

    I’m now a huge fan of the ‘binge-watch’ or at least of not being a multi-viewer. Now that the husband and I have done away with cable, we use only DVDs or Netflix Instant to view programming. We choose one show at a time and watch only that until we are done with that show’s available seasons. Depending on how busy our lives are, how good the show is, and the number of show seasons, that could be the 9 months it took us to re-watch all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the 2 weeks it took us to watch all of the 1 season of Desperate Romantics. But I find that not having my attention divided between multiple shows helps me really enjoy a depth to the storytelling that I missed before.

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