How Many Episodes Should We Watch at a Time?

I highly recommend Todd VanDerWerff’s latest TV think piece, “In Defense of Slow TV,” where he argues that sometimes it helps to take a show slowly, one episode a week or so, rather than in marathon or “binge” form. He notes that some shows, like later seasons of The Sopranos, benefit from the slower pace of one-episode-at-a-time viewing, and may not come off as well when the episodes are treated as one long movie (with the resulting emphasis on plot momentum). The piece isn’t an argument against the marathon/binge method. It’s just pointing out that that we see a show differently depending on how we choose to consume it, and it may come off differently – and sometimes better – when taken slowly. We’ve all heard about shows like The Wire that work better on DVD than one week at at time; this is just the flip side of that.

We might be approaching the point where, at least for some shows – particularly cable shows – there may not be one preferred or intended method of viewing. Right now most shows are still made for once-a-week viewing, because that (along with the once-a-day method of syndication) is where they make most of their money. But you can see how, once the audiences along other platforms become bigger, there might be some shows that are made primarily with the marathon viewer in mind. Let’s say a hypothetical show is offered in a package of five episodes at a time. Then the five-episode arc would be more important than a single episode, and maybe even more important than the full season.

That’s just a random hypothetical, because I don’t really know how TV storytelling will change; I just figure that it will change. In the ’00s, with TV on DVD becoming popular and making it possible to watch every episode of a show if you wanted, shows started putting in more things that took advantage of this market – more callbacks to earlier episodes, for example, which previously would only work if somebody onscreen told us what had happened in those earlier episodes. And DVD was never more than a subsidiary market for TV shows; the markets to come may wind up being as important as live viewing (or more), and that will change the expectations TV producers have of their viewers.

Now, the direction TV goes in might not necessarily be one that is friendly to the marathon format. Some types of online distribution are similar to the DVD format, where you buy a season and go through it. But others are more like syndication, where you happen on an episode and watch it, and may not even know what season it’s from or what order the episodes are in. Things may be different on how TV is monetized online. And also, how TV episodes are presented; this isn’t relevant to Canada, but the format of Hulu tends to discourage marathons and encourage watching whatever episode happens to be first on some list.

In any case, there will always be many different options for viewing a TV show, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other; the best way to watch a TV series is the way that gets you so emotionally involved in it that you have to keep watching. The question with any show is, what viewing method will get you to that point, where watching it is no longer a casual thing, or a slog, but something that absolutely must continue? With some shows, viewing a whole season very quickly can create a hunger for more seasons. But sometimes it can feel like work: a huge investment of time for a payoff that never seems to come. That may mean the show isn’t for us, but in some cases, it could mean we’d enjoy it more if it got a chance to creep up on us gradually, bit by bit.

Sometimes emotional involvement can even come from a way of watching that no one would recommend as the best choice: watching randomly and skipping episodes, or coming into a series in the middle. People do this constantly, even with serialized shows (most of which would be perfectly happy to have a new viewer jump in during season 4 or whatever; a viewer’s a viewer), but it’s nobody’s ideal. Still, there can be a wonderful moment where you thought you were only a casual or sometime viewer of a show, and then suddenly something clicks. The characters go from being merely interesting to enthralling, you become completely accustomed to the style of the show, and you realize that at some point you got hooked on the show. You’re no longer a casual viewer. Then you want to watch the series regularly from that point on, and you also want to see all the episodes you missed. The ideal, as always, is to see every episode and become immersed in everything that happens to these characters. There are several different ways of getting there.

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