Spectator by Seema Goswami: To binge or not to binge
That is the question, as streaming services make it all too easy to devour entire series in the course of an eveningUpdated: Aug 24, 2019 21:42 IST
I must admit that I am a little bleary-eyed as I sit down to write this column. And that’s because the second season of Sacred Games dropped on Netflix at midnight and I stayed up late – as you do – to binge-watch. All I managed were three episodes, though, before sleep got the better of me. But I am pretty sure that if the season had been released in the afternoon, I would have swallowed all of it down in one greedy gulp.
But as I resolutely turned the TV off and sloped off to bed, I couldn’t help but wonder if this kind of binge-watching was the best way to see a show. Would it be better, I pondered, if TV series like these dropped one episode at a time and allowed us all a little time to absorb events and plot twists. Watching it in one go, I was a bit overwhelmed by the turns the story took, and felt, on occasion, that the narrative was getting away from me.
One reason why these thoughts popped up in my head last night was because I had just caught the first episode of the second season of Succession, and had enjoyed it thoroughly. It left me craving for more, given that only one episode drops every week. But that interval also gave me enough breathing space to think about the story so far, to speculate about what could or would come next, and to discuss the episode threadbare with my friends and family.
Much the same thing had been true of Big Little Lies. That show, too, was not available to binge-watch unless you waited for a month and a half for all the episodes to be released. And in retrospect, I think the series benefitted from this kind of drip-drip-drip release. For one thing, most of us saw the episodes at much the same time, so we could have a kind of cooler-talk conversation about it for days on end on social media. We could marvel at the sinister edge Meryl Streep brought to her role as a bereaved mother. We could discuss whether Laura Dern’s unhinged portrayal cut too close to the bone or was just madly over the top. And we could all admire the steely presence of Nicole Kidman who was the perfect counterfoil to Streep.
The week’s gap gave us enough time to think about the show as we waited impatiently for the next episode to drop. That sense of delayed gratification meant that we enjoyed the next instalment even more than we would have if we’d been speeding through the episodes late into the night. And the show itself benefitted by having its shelf life increased to the six to eight weeks that people spent watching it – unlike binge-watched shows that can only hold the public imagination for a week or so at best.
Would it be better if TV series dropped one episode at a time instead of the season and allowed us time to absorb plot twists?
I know what you’re thinking. There is no law that says that you have to binge-watch a show just because it is released in its entirety on streaming services. Nobody is holding a gun to your head and insisting that you watch every episode of Made In Heaven the very same evening it appears on your TV screen.
But honestly, how can you possibly resist? Especially when a show is as compelling as Made In Heaven, with the narrative propelling you forward from one episode to another almost as if you had no free will in the matter? I certainly didn’t. I kept promising myself that this would be the absolute last episode I watched that night. But when the cliffhanger presented itself and a little box on my screen started uploading the next episode, I found myself powerless to power off the TV. I ended up going at bed at 4am, but if you ask me, it was totally worth it.
Perhaps this is the time to confess that I have form in this matter. Even before streaming services made zombies out of all of us, I was a greedy devourer of box-sets. It was 24 that started me off, with its conceit of all the action taking place in real time. As Jack Bauer tried to save the world (okay, America) one torture-session at a time, I watched in horrified fascination until the sun came up in the morning. More recently, the crazy antics of Carrie Mathison in Homeland kept me up all night as well. And it isn’t just action series or spy thrillers – that are geared to keep us on the edge of our seats– that have this effect on me. I was similarly transfixed by the two seasons of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.
But while shows like Fleabag (both seasons of which I binge-watched shamelessly) are perfect for being consumed in one giant bite, given their linear form, clear narrative arc and economical style of storytelling, others with a more sprawling structure benefit from deferred viewing. And after last night, I think the second season of Sacred Games could fall into that category. This is a show that needs space to breathe, and when we watch it, so do we.
So, from now on, it’s only one episode a night for me. But you go right ahead and binge if you want to. I will see you on the other side.
Journalist and author Seema Goswami has been a columnist with HT Brunch since 2004
Spectator appears every fortnight
From HT Brunch, August 25, 2019
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First Published: Aug 24, 2019 20:49 IST