Before the genesis of Netflix, the only way to “binge” a favourite television show was hope that one of the channels you had, happened to be showing a block of episodes, or if you were feeling fancy, splurging out on a DVD boxset. Missed an episode of Scrubs or Lost on RTE 2 one night? To Wikipedia you go for an episode recap, mo mhác.
Some shows are inherently better suited to watching in one sitting, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race or Queer Eye, where the plot isn’t important, but the binge-watching model is antithetical to scripted dramas. Simply put, it doesn’t give you time to fully digest or take in all the character beats and visual storytelling in the same way the ‘one episode a week’, a model of viewing television that has worked for over the past 50 years, can provide.
A good case study is Stranger Things versus The Mandalorian.
Stranger Things is a representative of the new school of content distribution, whereas The Mandalorian wore its 70s heritage like a badge of honour; it gave viewers a week between episodes to fully sink into your brain.
When you watch 8 episodes of Stranger Things in one sitting, you never want to hear a synth keyboard for the rest of your natural life.
When you watch an episode of The Mandalorian and give yourself time to let it sink in and fully digest, the world becomes that much richer and the character motivations become more clear-cut. More importantly, the show has a bigger cultural half-life.
The problem with Netflix’s distribution model is that hits like Sex Education or The Umbrella Academy become the biggest thing on social media for exactly one week, and then vanish into the ether, never to be heard from again until the next season comes out.
With the traditional model, shows such as the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks or before it wrote itself into a corner, The Good Place, built up a dedicated and consistent audience that waited on pins and needles to see what happened next week.
Twin Peaks’ revival is the perfect argument as to why the once a week model still matters. Episode 8 of The Return is the most audacious hour of television aired in the 2010s, but if it was just lumped into a random episode queue put out on a streaming service, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as impactful.
Getting the vague, “piece it together” narrative from Twitter the Monday morning after an episode aired in the States is something that just can’t be replicated with the ‘every episode available at once’ model.
With shows on streaming, the pressure is on you, the viewer, to watch it as soon as possible or face being left out of the cultural conversation and not catching the jokes or references.
With shows on streaming, the pressure is on you, the viewer, to watch it as soon as possible or face being left out of the cultural conversation and not catching the jokes or references. By the time you’ve caught up, the conversation is centred on a different show.
Granted, there are worse things going on in the world right now, but the proverbial “watercooler effect” of discussing what was on television last night is a corner of our culture, and it can’t be replaced by dumping the whole thing on Netflix on a Friday morning and expecting people to quote it by heart on a Monday afternoon.
The recent success of Normal People could be an indicator of where television is going, as it combines the best of both worlds.
You could watch it all in one sitting on the player, or you could watch two episodes on a Tuesday night on RTE with your horrified parents and wait for the uproar on Joe Duffy the next day.
The latter is much more rewarding and engaging, knowing the nation watched the same thing you did last night at the same time, as opposed to the second-hand “I saw that weeks ago” reply you’d get with a streaming show.
Being part of the wider cultural conversation is such an abstract yet unique paradigm that entertainment has over other pastimes, and it’s being slowly eroded away in the era of streaming.
Networks like HBO are fighting the good fight, making sure shows like Succession and Chernobyl stay true to the ‘’once a week’ model and build up true word-of-mouth with viewers, but in an era where televisions are used to watch anything but the pre-programmed channels on there, it remains to be seen how long the traditional television model can hold out for.