I hadn’t planned on spending the better part of this afternoon watching Mozart in the Jungle on Amazon Prime. I had plans, dammit! But here I am some five hours later with daylight wasted away and the entire series under my belt. And for the most part, I enjoyed it — I doubt I’d have binged all ten episodes if I hadn’t — and if Amazon gives us a second season, I’m on board.
But it still feels a little strange being able to consume a show in this fashion. The majority of my TV watching life was spent under the fall/spring model, where you got your episodes parsed out once a week, with the holidays and summer being a dead zone of reruns. If you wanted to watch everything in one fell swoop, you had to wait for the not always certain home video release (a prospect made awkward by the limitations of VHS at the time) or somehow manage to record every single episode with our primitive VCRs. DVD and DVR made this process a whole lot easier, but you still had to wait for the weekly allotment to run its course before you could binge.
Now we’ve got Netflix and Amazon dropping entire series in one fell swoop, and they’re proving to be popular. Viewers excitedly indulge in marathons and throw online reviewers into a tizzy as to how to write about a show when their readers are consuming it at different rates. It’s almost a race to see who can finish first to we can finally start talking about it. And it feels like a double-edged sword to me. Yes, we can get our instant gratification and keep watching as long as we want. We’re not held hostage by the whims of the antiquated notion of the TV season and the prime time schedule. But it also leaves no time to catch our breath, to think about what we’ve just seen. There’s no anticipation, no conversation. It’s TV as a bag of potato chips, always one more waiting for us, until we’re at the bottom of the bag. And I wonder if some of these shows feel better than they are because we can spend an entire afternoon lost in their worlds without coming up for air, immune to outside opinions of friends or critics.
And yet there’s something to be said for the cumulative build of a viewing marathon. The way creators can build a season like a mixed tape, in control of the beats and pauses. How viewers can make their own peaks and valleys, and craft their own cliffhangers. And that comfortable feeling of being in the middle of a binge, knowing you’re still a long ways from being done, and that you can postpone reality for just a little while longer. It’s the ultimate escape. and something that feeds into our growing need for instant gratification. And besides, I doubt we’d be devouring these shows if they weren’t at the very least entertaining. You don’t keep eating a bag of chips you hate just because you haven’t reached the bottom yet.