My name is Adrienne, and I’ve done my fair share of binge-watching over the past couple of years. I say that upfront so you know that I’m not opposed to the idea of sitting down and taking in the entire new season of a show over the course of a few nights or weeks. I’ve done it a lot. Stranger Things. 13 Reasons Why. Grace & Frankie. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Mozart in the Jungle.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if the ability to binge-watch certain shows doesn’t restrict their potential to become true cultural phenomena. Shows like Grace & Frankie are perfect for binging: They’re light, they’re fun, and they’re easily digestible. But consider a show like Stranger Things. Yes, Netflix subscribers loved the show’s first season when it dropped, and it instantly became something people were talking about. A lot of people. But the talk didn’t really last that long. After a short spell, everybody had seen the whole season, and there wasn’t much left to talk about. The same thing happened when Season Two was released.
As big a hit as Stranger Things has been for Netflix, imagine how much bigger the show might have become had it been a serial show on ABC, NBC, or HBO. What if we had been asked to wait a week between each new episode, forced to spend that time trying to digest every little minute detail of what we saw. And talk about it. And theorize about it. And write fan blogs about it.
Even when people are talking about a hot show like Stranger Things or 13 Reasons Why (another one that everyone I knew seemed to be talking about for a brief time), the cultural effect is diluted by the fact that they’re not all talking about the same stuff at the same time. Everyone’s watching different episodes, having different reactions. There’s no, “OMG, can you believe what JUST happened?”
I quit watching Scandal a few years back, yet I couldn’t help but tune in to Twitter during the series finale that aired last week. It was fun to read people’s passionate responses in real time as the show was still going on. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu bring a lot of great stuff to the table, but they can’t bring that shared, in-the-moment experience that truly ingrains a show in the public consciousness.
There’s just something to be said for making people wait. It can escalate a show from love to obsession. Just ask Game of Thrones and This Is Us fans.
As I ponder the binge-watching question, I can’t help but think of the three shows in my adult life with which I was truly and deeply obsessed: The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Lost. I’m glad I wasn’t able to binge-watch these shows because I’m not sure my passion would have had the space it needed to grow. Oh, the hours wasted in between episodes, pondering plot points and character developments—especially with The X-Files and Lost, which are the exact kinds of shows that lend themselves to this type of passionate dissection.
Lost fans, probably more than any others, understand being caught up in the cultural obsession. If you watched the show when it originally ran, you no doubt remember the games ABC used to play in airing episodes. A few new ones, then several weeks of repeats. Extended off-seasons after yet another blow-your-mind cliffhanger. It drove us nuts—and drove our obsession. It felt like they were on that island forever, and we were stuck right there with them. I remember, the day after each new episode, hurrying over to Entertainment Weekly to read Jeff Jensen’s great fan blog and absorb his analysis of plot points, symbolism, etc.—then spending the rest of the week pondering what it all could mean.
Now, when I reflect on those shows, I can’t separate the show from the obsession that surrounded it. It’s all wrapped together in one loving package that takes me back to a specific time in my life. I just don’t see me ever having that same level of engagement for a show I can consume, in total seclusion, over the course of a weekend.
Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at HomeTheaterReview.com. Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.