Once fleet and ephemeral, defined as much by time and season as strawberries or sweet corn once were, television is undergoing a similar transformation in genetics and packaging that is neatly summed up by the Netflix new original series "Lilyhammer."
That Netflix got into the original programming business was to be expected — eventually, you have to actually make something. That the entertainment company would premiere all eight of its episodes at once was in its own way not surprising either. The move immediately set it apart from both traditional and nontraditional ways of viewing television and gives new, real-time meaning to the national habit Netflix has helped create — binge television.
Binge television: n. any instance in which more than three episodes of an hourlong drama or six episodes of a half-hour comedy are consumed at one sitting. Syn.: Marathon television and being a TV critic.
Once an outlier rite of the professionals, the brokenhearted and the ailing — honestly, is there any better way to spend those first numbed-out, post-surgical days than with the last two seasons of "Sex and the City?" — binge television is now the mainstream. Caught between overstocked DVR queues — when you're so behind already, why not save all those "Mad Men" episodes for a rainy day and then simply watch them one after another? — and the increasing availability of entire seasons on DVD and the Internet, television has become something to be gorged upon, with tales designed to be told over months consumed in a matter of hours. It's television as novel rather than serialized story.
Now serialization has served many masters — the Greek gods, Charles Dickens, Wonder Woman — but none so faithfully as television. No other genre, save the comics page, is as eternally open-ended, elastic to the point of incredulity. The beauty of the successful television show is that it uses a finite number of characters to tell a never-ending story or a story that ends only when the audience and occasionally the creator loses interest.
Sometimes writers go into a show with a well-defined narrative arc that takes his or her characters from Point A to Point Z in a certain number of episodes, but more often than not, a show runner's "Bible," like the pirate's code, serves more as a guideline as main characters with terminal cancer go into remission or a minor character goes supernova. Even when defined by actual historical events — the Korean War, a presidential administration — most television shows move along a timeline created, at least in part, by the weekly nature of its appearance.
A good television show writer understands that Oscar Wilde wasn't kidding when he said, "I can resist anything but temptation." Drama holds its audience in a perpetual state of anticipation, joyful in the knowledge that answers will be doled out only sparingly, that no resolution will ever be as powerful as the growing desire for it.
Theater and film do this for a few hours; television can do it for years. Audiences form an intimacy with television that they do not have with other visual mediums, not because television comes into their homes but because television comes into their heads. And stays there. To "watch" a series, one must interact with it, carry the characters and plotlines around in between episodes, consciously or unconsciously thinking about what will happen next, talking about it with friends or, nowadays, taking the pulse of other viewers via the Internet.
Then the next week it starts all over again.
As more people turn to Netflix and other delivery services to "catch up" on series they've missed, the social element of television, that famous water-cooler factor, is the first casualty. Not that long ago, burbling over with the excitement of "Game of Thrones," I recommended it to a friend. He informed me that he did not subscribe to HBO but wanted to "get through it" on Netflix — he was in the second season of "The Sopranos" and as soon as he finished that and "The Wire," he would certainly look for "Game of Thrones."
Never mind that, at the rate he's going, he'd better hope they have Netflix in heaven. To me, television is a vital, timely thing, alive in its moment; watching even a terrific series like "The Sopranos" years after its airing is a bit like watching home movies or "Casablanca" for the 15th time. The experience may be pleasurable, but it's informed at least as much by nostalgia as creative tension. The end is here; you are just making your way toward it.
Not everything about a more finite model of television is a terrible idea. I still miss the miniseries very much, and many shows would benefit from a clearer sense of purpose, a better articulated uber narrative, and a willingness to actually end rather than run out of gas. Binge watching can reveal the unnecessary holes that serialization masks: repetition of plot, inconsistency of character, the absurdity of an overworked conceit.
Some shows hang on simply because they've become bad habits: After the pain meds become unnecessary, the gals of the last season of "Sex and the City" seem ridiculously immature for their ages, their endless get-togethers (not to mention their wardrobes) impossible in the lives of real women.
Still, in an increasingly cynical world, TV remains the most optimistic of the art forms, capable of miraculous improvement at any point. Most bad television still seems too overthought rather than too open-ended.
Certain types of shows are obviously better suited to the marathon view than others. The big dramas are the most obvious, especially those in which a season tells a precisce story — "The Wire" is a perfect example. Comedies, with their laugh tracks and situation manipulations, can quickly become irritating — laughter may be the best medicine but best wait at least four hours before the next dose. Procedurals are like popcorn, easy to eat in great handfuls, but as with anything, too much bingeing is never a good idea — watch too many successive episodes of any show, and you find yourself queasy yet not satisfied, seeking an end because surely after watching anything for four hours (or six or eight), there should be an end, from something that is designed to be eternal.
The danger is that television writers will adjust accordingly, creating series built to be viewed as a continuous whole. No doubt, shows good and bad would emerge from such a model, but it would be a terrible thing if TV lost sight of all its fabulous oddly shaped and unpruned trees while worrying over much about the final shape of the forest.