Opinion Binge-watching television gave us what we said we wanted — and made us lonelier

(Molly Magnell for The Washington Post)

Disney Plus is advertising its new weekly super-antihero series “Loki” with the tagline “Wednesdays are the new Fridays.” Netflix is rolling out a few episodes of its reality competition show “The Circle” each week rather than dumping the whole season at once. And after releasing the whole first season of video game company sitcom “Mythic Quest” in a single week in 2020, Apple TV Plus is now doling out new installments one at a time. Binge-watching, briefly the streaming TV industry’s norm, suddenly looks a lot less dominant.

Thank goodness. Shoveling entire seasons of television at viewers faster than any non-insomniac can possibly absorb and encouraging us to binge-watch helped make services such as Netflix into major players in the entertainment industry. But bingeing neglected an essential part of what makes television distinct and wonderful: the ongoing conversation that follows each installment of a serialized story.

In trying to unite us as subscribers to Netflix or Amazon Prime, binge-watching made us a little bit lonelier.

Starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, an era of remarkable television began arriving on screens, with remarkable conversations to match.” Websites such as Television Without Pity and critics such as Alan Sepinwall pioneered a new style of television writing to cover the likes of “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” They didn’t just summarize the plots of individual episodes — they also deeply analyzed artistic choices and thematic resonances and provoked wide-ranging, substantive, ongoing debates.

At their best, the discussions were as engaging as the shows themselves. Recapping the eight seasons of “Game of Thrones” one week at a time was one of the best professional experiences of my life, not because I loved staying up every Sunday night to file 2,000 words at lightning speed, but because the responses to the series and to my discussions of it were so rigorous and intriguing.

As they moved into the original content business in the early 2010s, binge-watching became a way for upstart services, including Netflix and Amazon Prime, to differentiate themselves from legacy outlets such as HBO. These streaming companies claimed to be aiming for the same level of quality. But unlike those creaky old cable networks, Netflix and other streaming services promised not to keep audiences waiting for their next fix of shows such as “House of Cards.” They would give you every episode of a season of television, all at once, to be watched at your leisure.

That innovation led to a huge wave of new content. After all, when your audience can blaze through a whole show in mere days, it will always need something new to watch. But in the process, bingeing did away with much of what made television distinct — the carefully paced storytelling, the cliffhangers, the communal watching.

“I think there are very few circumstances, honestly, in which the binge has proven to be a better model for almost anything related to television,” Sepinwall, a print and website veteran who is now Rolling Stone’s chief television critic, said bluntly when I called him to discuss how bingeing had changed the conversation about TV and the relationships that shows have with fans and each other.

Much of the problem is a simple matter of logistics. If no one has any idea when anyone else is watching a given episode of a show, it’s much harder to debate it in the moment, much less for a sustained conversation about a series to develop.

You can see that change in behavior by tracking Google Trends. User searches for shows such as “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” rose when new seasons started and stayed elevated through their finales. But when Netflix rolled out the full seasons of shows such as “House of Cards” and “Stranger Things,” interest peaked sharply and fell just as fast. However popular these shows might be for a moment, the conversation about them doesn’t last long.

Something else contributes to the lonely-watcher feeling: There’s simply more television available now than ever before. The number of scripted original series alone, not even counting reality shows, news programming or reruns, reached a high of 532 in 2019 before dipping during the covid-19 pandemic.

And while it sometimes feels as though this boom has resulted in a dilution of quality, there’s still television worthy of the same intense discussion that defined the immediate pre-bingeing era. Damon Lindelof’s riff on the superhero comic “Watchmen” was easily as rich for argument and interpretation as “Game of Thrones,” but it never garnered even close to the same live audiences, and as such, the same potential debating society.

In the nascent days of competitive binge-watching, Sepinwall says, whenever he raised concerns about the effects of this new model, “I would get a lot of people saying, ‘No, I want what I want when I want it. I want to be able to choose. Screw you, old man.’” Now, Sepinwall finds that with audiences overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, they want everything to slow down.

It might be impossible to restore what now seems like television’s Golden Age, in terms of both the quality of the shows and the conversation about them. But at least, Sepinwall suggests, the return of weekly releases and the community they make possible means “everyone’s kind of seeing the writing on the wall that sometimes we just want television to behave like television.”

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