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critic’s notebook

Binge-watching leaves little time to savor the flavor

From left, “Aquarius,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “House of Cards.”

Slow down, my fellow TV lovers. Let the finest stories you watch, and listen to, sink into your consciousness like feathers floating down into a canyon. Let each episode, each scene, each sharply written line provoke your imagination.

Think about what Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” or the Russian spies of “The Americans,” or the entwined Texas community of “Friday Night Lights” has to say to you. Let the unlikely lovers, the wily tricksters, the lonely heroes make an enduring impression.

In other words, savor. Don’t binge. Don’t let the hours of the best TV series blur together into a vague reverie.


We’ve been able to binge on old episodes since the advent of TV on videotape and DVD; but in recent years, Netflix streaming has pioneered the full-season drop, enabling us to watch a cluster of brand-new episodes in one fell swoop (with a little help from caffeine).

Since “House of Cards” broke big in 2013, the bingeing trend has taken off, with entertainment magazines and fans raving about its glories. Bingeing has become an informal contest: Who can finish the new season of “Orange Is the New Black” — which hits Netflix on Friday — the quickest? Who is the most obsessed?

And now, as Amazon Prime also gains traction with original full-season-drop series such as “Transparent” and “Bosch,” the networks are trying on the binge model for size. This spring, NBC has released the entire season of its Charles Manson drama “Aquarius” on demand, while continuing to air one episode per week on Thursday nights.

Some industry insiders are saying that in the near future, the binge model will prevail, that TV viewers will become so accustomed to having full seasons at their disposal, to watch as they desire without controlled access, that the idea of a gradual release will be anathema. In case you don’t know, TV outlets like being addictive, beloved, and revered, but being anathema is anathema to them.


Translation: We like candy, and we want more of it, right here, right now. Give it to us, and we will consume it. It’s a kind of psychic obesity.

I hope I don’t sound crusty or anti-tech. I readily admit that there’s a valuable place for bingeing, when it’s time to catch up on a series, or when you have a bad cold and are doomed to the couch for a few days of dazing. It’s a tremendous and convenient option to have. No one wants to go back to the pre-time-shifting world. But I’d hate for bingeing to become the norm, so that we’re all only marathoning scripted TV shows in bulk, independently of one another, in our flat-screen bubbles. I’d hate to think that people are cramming in the next “Breaking Bad” during a lost weekend, alone. The “Breaking Bads” of this world deserve drawn-out analog treatment.

I prefer the model of watching an episode of something good, and then sitting on it for a week or so, old school. Why? For one thing, there is the aftermath of the episode, when we can analyze what happened, chew on it.

The week after an episode of “Breaking Bad,” away from Walt’s justifications and magnetism, was a time to let the growing ugliness in Walt’s soul have a chilling effect. With “Orange Is the New Black,” the aftermath allows a cooler perspective on the politics within Litchfield Penitentiary, on the way the heroine, Piper Chapman, is growing another skin. That first season of “Homeland” toyed ruthlessly with our expectations of Brody’s loyalties in what turned out to be an exquisitely long-form fashion. To learn the truth about Brody in one or two days, without the mad guessing during the period between episodes, seems like a far less powerful and enjoyable experience.


And there’s the anticipation, too, the looking ahead to the next installment and guessing what will happen. Not knowing for a week if, say, Martha on “The Americans” has learned that her husband is a spy can be a stimulating exercise in conjecture. Does she already know subconsciously? Will she leave him? The questioning is rewarding, especially when moral issues are afoot, waiting to be picked through and debated. Cliffhangers were invented to give us anticipatory pleasure, to make us wonder and puzzle over what will happen next.

By the way, I’m not talking about simple mystery stories, or network franchise series, where the whodunit plot’s the thing. The shows that deserve to be savored are the carefully written character dramas, where the characters reveal more facets the more we ponder them and their changes. I can’t imagine fully fathoming the psychological motivations of a Tony Soprano or a Don Draper if I’m hurrying through their stories without scrutiny and speculation, eagerly aiming to reach the end.

When we read books, we’re actively using our imaginations to visualize and grasp; there’s no great need to pause between chapters. But watching TV is a more passive endeavor; pausing enables processing, interpretation, and connection.


Another sacrifice when it comes to bingeing: community. Our culture is so fractured right now, split off into countless little niches. Binge-viewing only adds to those divides. One of the pleasures of series television is the community that develops around a show, the passionate sharing of theories and guesswork. Of course we can talk in detail about shows we’ve binged, but only in the event that we’re at the same point in viewing, to avoid spoilers, and only if our memories are as impermeable and airtight as Tupperware.

I probably won’t have many conversations about “Orange Is the New Black” for a few weeks, as friends and readers find time to watch all 13 hours; and when I do, the talk will be about the general arcs of the season and, broadly, whether we liked them. Nothing very stimulating or specific.

Seeing TV shows as very long movies is tempting, especially since TV has become a more creative and esteemed medium in the past 15 years. But episodic storytelling has a distinct chapter-after-chapter narrative style. That’s a definitive part of series TV — pieces that fall together across time, the relationship we form with these characters who come into our living rooms for many weeks and sometimes many years, the emotional and intellectual bonds we form with them. I hate seeing that essential distinction fade away in the name of speed and immediate gratification.


Patience isn’t just a virtue; it can be an art form.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.