The new TV habit: One season at a time

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By Sarah Berkshire

A new entertainment avenue has emerged.

Empowered by on-demand cable and online services such as Netflix, more and more Americans are “binge” watching, or viewing at least three hours’ worth of a television show in a single sitting.

For some, it starts as a way to catch up on a show that’s attracting a lot of chatter such as “Sons of Anarchy” or “Game of Thrones.” Other times, it’s a pick-your-program rerun marathon of “The Sopranos” or “The Office.”

“Lost” was my gateway show.

A co-worker was annoyed I couldn’t contribute to the weekly dissection of the sci-fi drama. So, before the fifth season premiere, he lent me the DVD box sets of the previous seasons and I had my first binge. I watched while I ate, while I folded clothes, while on a flight to San Diego. But mostly, while sunk into fatigued couch cushions, doing nothing at all productive.

It was a good thing, and I couldn’t get enough. And at the start of season five, I was smacking back cravings with the rest of the network-watching world.

The same thing happened with “Mad Men,” thanks to Netflix. And then “The Walking Dead,” thanks to on-demand cable.

An HBO loyalist who doesn’t want to pay for Showtime, too, I consider “Weeds” an annual indulgence. I gorged my eyes and ears on the eighth and final season in three sittings last week. And I didn’t have to wait to find out who shot Nancy, if Andy and Jill would have a baby or if Guillermo would give up vengeance for cash.

Bingeing makes television more like a novel. There are still chapters, but you can take in as much of the story as you want. The downside being that, like a good book, some shows will steal your sleep.

Some have argued binge watching takes away from the art. Individual episodes have their own merits, which you’ll miss if you don’t let it simmer. And that simmering time gives the viewing community a chance to discuss and analyze. Others think a good story will withstand any pitfalls of first-viewing marathons.

This month, Netflix released its original series “House of Cards.” It’s a political thriller with a powerhouse lead actor, Kevin Spacey. But instead of giving us a steady stream of weekly episodes like kibble to hungry dogs, Netflix has let audiences proverbially tear open the whole bag right on the kitchen floor and feast.

After watching two episodes, “House of Cards” feels like a great show. Not that I’m a worthy critic — it’s an inside Washington story and I was one of the half dozen Americans who were excited about “K Street.”

The first episode is a typical scene-setter with a light resolution. Audiences might have been curious to see if the second episode would end with a cliffhanger, as many weekly dramas do, sending viewers off to speculate and giving them a reason to come back next week. There’s no great cliffhanger here, but there is a resolution that shows Netflix isn’t really breaking the episode mold. At least not yet.

The series follows “Lilyhammer,” Netflix’s first full-season release.

It’s becoming a prefered way to watch for some.

For example, the subplots of “Boardwalk Empire” lost me last season and I gave up the show for now. It will be much better to watch it all at once, once the series ends.

It will be interesting to see what long-term affects bingeing will have on television.

You’d think it will impact the writing, which is now designed to hook us just before the commercial break, bring us back the next week and catch us up on the characters’ lives after a long summer break.

The “House of Cards” way doesn’t fit the network model but maybe we’ll get more compact seasons.

“The Middle” every night for two weeks, “Modern Family” every night for two weeks? I’ll make DVR space for that.


Sarah Berkshire can be reached at sberkshire@thenewsenterprise.com or (270) 505-1745.