Box sets and binge-watching are slowly ruining TV

Luke Stevenson is a journalist at Community Care and an avid cinema-watcher. He is also one of the three hosts of The Popcorn Muncher Podcast.

Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington in the seventh season of Game of Thrones
Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington in the seventh season of Game of Thrones

Recently, I watched Westworld. It’s a ten-episode season of one-hour episodes, with some running for longer. I watched it to the end, because I’m dutiful, despite deciding about four episodes in that it wasn’t for me. I’m not here to review the first season of Westworld because that discussion happened a year ago and I don’t need that long to tell you what I think. It’s pants. But this is an example of how I wasted more than six hours of my time pursuing something I don’t enjoy.

This is binge-watching and box set culture in a nutshell. You wait for a show to end, then you watch it all at once. Or you watch shows on Netflix or Amazon, where entire series land in one big dump.

I broadly think it is great for entertainment fans to live in an era, where so much of so much of what we love is available relatively cheaply and with great convenience. But then I watched more than six hours of a TV show I didn’t like. Why did I do that? If I’d watched it on its weekly release schedule, I would have given up four weeks in rather than irritate myself with its glacial pace as I watched it to the bitter end, slowly but surely becoming more and more irate about the show. It really is pants.

This is the fashion now. It is an efficient way of catching up with cultural things being widely discussed. I don’t necessarily think this is wholly bad. For example, I caught up with Game of Thrones, Lost, Fringe, Chuck and the American version of The Office through box sets, and I consider all of these to be among my favourite TV shows ever made.

What we have lost, though, is the ability to let go.


The folly of FOMO

Anthony Hopkins in the first season of HBO series Westworld
Anthony Hopkins in the first season of HBO series Westworld

I watched four episodes of Westworld – which is really, really pants – and started to panic that I was the problem and that the show would get good as soon as I stopped watching. However the chances are that if a show can’t make you like it in four hours of viewing, it’s probably not for you anyway. Often, it is fear of missing out (FOMO) that drives us to torture ourselves with stuff we don’t like, even if it’s just to be even more dismissive about it when we get to the end. But the end result of all this is it means we tolerate stuff that is either not good or just not for us.

When I began season one of Breaking Bad, I liked it, but when I announced misgivings about season two, friends told me with a straight face: “you have to wait because it gets so good in season four”. I’ve watched shows where people say “ignore the first season, season three is where it gets good” and I accept that as reasonable. If a waiter served me boiled cat urine in a restaurant, but assured me it would be good once I got 80% of the way down the bowl, would I dutifully swallow it down despite how little I liked the start of it?

Box sets and binge-watches make it possible for passionate fans of a show to tell friends how good it gets after the first 38 bad episodes, which is fine, but it also costs the rest of us the ability to label that as a ridiculous form of argument. I don’t want to watch a four-hour compilation of violent car accidents under the assurance there’s a cute cat at minute 217 and, in the same way, I didn’t want to keep watching Westworld – which is so pants – but I did it anyway.

The impact of this? My other half and I have to battle over time slots for when we can sit down and watch this show we don’t like because we have to finish it. Watching TV has become a chore; something to desperately submit yourself to like it’s a miserable act of necessity like an invasive medical exam or doing the washing up.

This viewing culture also changes the way TV is being produced. Creators know their 10-13 episode seasons will likely be watched across shorter periods of time, so therefore stack the more exciting and shocking moments towards the end, allowing the first half of the season to build character and plot. Spending more time on plot and character is a good thing, but shooting for ‘the big shock’ rather than many hours of entertaining television is surely harming the people who tune in week-by-week.


Westeros weekly?

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in the seventh season of Game of Thrones
Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in the seventh season of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is an example of a TV series which really popularised the above structure, with episode nine of each run being its big episode for the first five seasons. Now I am a lover of Game of Thrones, but I can’t have been alone in that, throughout those seasons, I would stockpile episodes to ‘get through’ during the many dips in pace and quality. That structure has changed dramatically in seasons six and seven and it is difficult to argue that hasn’t led to an improvement in the show’s quality.

When I, a serial TV watcher, am making excuses for how I don’t have time to watch a one-hour episode of television, there are warning signs that the TV show I am preparing to watch is something I do not like. But, eventually, I will watch it so I can share in the binge, discuss it with other bingers and just waste my time under the vague pretense that if I didn’t do this, I would be doing TV wrong. I wouldn’t be, though, and nor in many circumstances would the show because people have different tastes. Those differing tastes, however, are now under pressure and could become one homogeneous blob of wildly popular opinion for the next binge-watch that catches on.

Take the explosion of Stranger Things, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black on Netflix. I watched two seasons of the latter ones, despite not really liking them at all, because it was what people were doing. I was more positive about Stranger Things, but still didn’t consider it something I would really enjoy watching enough to justify me getting through the whole season under circumstances where the shows eight episodes weren’t right there in front of me whenever I wanted them. My choppy experiences with these shows is not the fault of the people who like them, or the shows themselves, its my particular tastes. However, the environment in which we consume those tastes can now make watching TV a chore.

If someone was watching my favourite show, Lost, just to see what the fuss surrounding the ending was all about, despite the fact they didn’t like the show at all, I should tell them to stop watching as it’s a waste of their time if they don’t enjoy it. As a super fan though, I would likely tell them about season five’s amazing ending, a great episode in season four and that disliking Lost is a bad position akin to thinking Hillary would have been worse than Trump or that avocado is okay.


Is this truly a TV golden age?

Sci-fi series Stranger Things became a major cultural hit for Netflix
Sci-fi series Stranger Things became a major cultural hit for Netflix

TV over the last decade is, in many ways, the best it has ever been. Does that come as a result of people being able to consume more of it through box sets and bingeing? Possibly. Without a finite set of weekday slots to work with, we certainly have more flexibility with how we consume media, and that is both better for the consumer and producer. However, there is a cost to this and that cost is that I watched Westworld – which is pants – when I didn’t like it. The cost is that bad TV shows get more of an airing than they deserve because the structure around them pressures viewers into watching them to the bitter end.

You could argue that, in a world of hot takes and people making uninformed comments, watching shows you don’t like all the way through at least keeps you better informed about why you don’t like them. However, doing something you don’t like for longer just to be more steadfast in how much you dislike it is surely just a waste of time. It’s time we can spend doing other things, like not watching Westworld which, for the last time, is just really, really pants.


What do you think of TV binge-watch culture? How does it play into the way major TV shows are structured during a so-called ‘golden age’ for the medium? Let me know in the comments section.

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