What Types of Shows Are Best for Binge-Watching?

By Tim Surette

Jun 12, 2014

Online video streaming, the rise of the DVD box set, and Netflix's well-known model of releasing its original programming one full season at a time have changed the way we watch television, and last Friday's drop of Orange Is the New Black's sophomore season allowed dedicated fans to park their keisters on the couch and watch until they ran out of episodes or their eyeballs dried out, whichever came first.

The idea of watching six episodes of a show over the course of a few days scares the cheese out of me because I do not consider myself a good binge-watcher. Maybe it's my weak constitution or my attention deficiency, maybe it's a fear of reaching the end too soon, but for some reason, I'm just not interested in swallowing a huge chunk of a season in one go.

But I did it, watching three episodes of Orange Is the New Black Season 2 per night for two nights (which isn't THAT difficult, I'll admit) and I found it to be absolutely pleasant. In fact, if I had set out to review the series in a more traditional fashion of one episode at a time, my glowing praise of the first half of the season would've sounded a lot more like a slog, due to the first two episodes consisting primarily of set-up. 

And yet, I'm finding it difficult to catch up on a few other shows I've fallen behind on—namely, Orphan Black and The Americans—and I've found that only really stomach one episode per sitting. Why does binge-watching work for some shows and not for others?

Opinions will differ on which shows lend themselves to binging, and every show is binge-able to some degree, but I think I've broken the code on what works for me, and it all comes down to genre. Below, I've judged four types of television shows on their binge-ability; share your own thoughts in the comments!


1. EXPANSIVE, WORLD-BUILDING ENSEMBLE DRAMAS

EXAMPLES: Orange Is the New Black, The WireBattlestar GalacticaLost, Game of Thrones, Friday Night Lights 

The trademark here is a huge ensemble cast, with each character playing his or her part in a larger world—whether it's a women's prison, a football community in Texas, or a mysterious island with a questionable past. In the case of Orange Is the New Black specifically, the show extends its character stories across several episodes rather than condensing them into a single hour and then leaving them behind. Piper's problems have their own tunnel, but Red, Daya, and Nicky are each walking their own interesting path. There isn't just an A, B, and C story, there's a whole alphabet in play. Binging on Orange Is the New Black is like watching 10 episodes laterally (as opposed to chronologically), with each compartmentalized plot adding a layer to the bigger, series-long arc (while the backstories provide a solid backbone for single servings, of course). You don't watch just to see what happens next, you want to see what's going on with everyone.

VERDICT: Stock up on eyedrops, these are highly binge-able! I plowed through The Wire three or four episodes at a time, and it made for a fantastic viewing experience.


2. SINGLE- AND DOUBLE-CHARACTER STUDY DRAMAS 

EXAMPLES: Breaking Bad, Hannibal, DexterMad MenHomelandJustifiedHouse of Cards 

Yeah, yeah, you're like, "But Tim, Breaking Bad is the ULTIMATE binge show, my trigger finger is itchin' just thinking about it!" The difference here, in my humble opinion, is that the show gets better when you spend 167 hours between each episode thinking about what just happened and discussing it with your friends. I don't know about you, but lingering on the midpoint of the epic shootout that ended "To'hajiilee" enhanced the experience for me. Since these types of shows are really about only one or two characters (Walter White, Don Draper, Carrie Mathison, Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, Boyd Crowder and Raylan Givens), with other characters' plots supporting that of the main character (or two), they're best enjoyed in a slow burn.

VERDICT: Best in small bites, which will allow you to truly appreciate the flavor. Binge if you want, but you might miss out on the fine appreciation that comes with time. I looked forward to the time after each Breaking Bad episode, and to the anticipation that led up to each new installment, as much as I loved watching the episodes themselves. (You could argue that Game of Thrones belongs in this category for the same reason, except for the one or two main characters thing.)


3. SERIALIZED COMEDIES


EXAMPLES: Arrested Development, Veep, Silicon Valley, Awkward., How I Met Your Mother (kinda)

The half-hour serialized comedy—which I define as a sitcom that features prolonged, ongoing storylines, just like a drama—is a rare breed these days that lives mostly in the realm of cable television. But these are some of the most binge-able shows out there. At 30 (or 22) minutes long, they're the Lay's potato chips or crack cocaine of TV. Watching an extra episode of Arrested Development is easy-peasy because laughter is energizing, and the quick pacing and short runtime practically beg you to watch just one more. In contrast, settling in for another episode of Mad Men at midnight requires the steely fortitude of a lumberjack, because of the daunting, hour-long commitment and the emotional exhaustion it will bring. 

VERDICT: Get yourself a sitting donut, because you're gonna be sedentary for a while. Binge away! Arrested Development marathons on IFC are like a bowl of candy to me.


4. STANDARD SITCOMS

EXAMPLES: The Big Bang Theory, The Office, Community, Modern Family, The IT Crowd, The Simpsons, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

These shows often press the reset button in each episode by making sure that all their characters end up in the same orbit they started in. Everyone reconvenes on the living room couch/around the study group table/at the bar to both kick off and conclude the episode, basically. And the reason is simple: syndication! That's why, late at night, you'll see many of the comedies listed above airing on your local CW affiliate. These shows are the shrimp cocktail of television: You can have just one as a snack, or you can shovel them into your maw like a Humpback Whale until the ocean calls to say it's running out. Easily gorged on, but there's also nothing compelling you to continue. Perfect for any occasion. 

VERDICT: It's all about personal taste and your current situation. I can mainline six episodes of The IT Crowd and not even notice that my house is burning down, or I can be plenty happy to just watch one before I go to bed.  


Do you have rules for binge-watching? What shows have you binged? What shows did you try to binge but couldn't?


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  • La-Lady Aug 18, 2014

    I binge watch every show I want to see. Most of the times I don't start watching shows when they premiere. I wait until they get renewed for at least a second season and sometimes I even wait until they end. Then I watch them in a marathon.
    I hate having to wait over summer /winter /holiday breaks to see what happens next and I hate that there's always one week between the episodes.
    I tend to forget things that might be important one day when I watch shows that way. That's why I marathon shows. So I remember everything that happened as I have just seen it like 10 episodes ago.

  • joehammerschmidt7 Jul 13, 2014

    I can only guess newsmagazines, talk shows, game shows, certain competitive, reality and nonfiction programs are NOT meant to be binge-watched?

  • mzzdelinquent Jul 01, 2014

    but it should be said.. marathon sessions have long been popular by the people ....before networks decided it was cool. [&lets; face it, netflicks, amazon etc ..release full seasons in 1-drop to draw in subscribers...& their entire business model is predicated on binge watching complete seasons of shows]...

  • mzzdelinquent Jul 01, 2014

    binge watching is made for flu season... I binged on Game of Thrones season 1+2 in days, over the weekend... & i subconsciously felt better & healthier screaming at the tv. (go figure)

    doctors should recommend this as a course of therapy.

    :)

  • shilllsing Jun 29, 2014

    24 . It pretty much invented and will always own serialized / binge-viewing. It's release on DVD created the DVDonTV craze and watching a show's season on DVD before the new season premieres. It also changed television to be riskier, bolder, and more serialized.

  • willieno2 Jul 01, 2014

    Pity the show is such a pile of shit.

  • randomjean Jun 28, 2014

    i planned to binge watch helix this summer. I havent started watching anything bout it yet.. I was planning to do that with Hostage season 1 this summer but i couldnt resist watching ep2 after i started on 1. ended up binge watching the whole season in a few nights.

    I love the idea of binge watching after a season has ended. its nice to know i dun hv to wait for the next ep. I do recommend not ever reading the shows only after watching it. the downside is, by the time you got to the damn exciting part of the show, most of the world is over it lol

  • itsmemadie01 Jun 23, 2014

    orphan black is good for marathon but i wouldn't recommend twd or got unless one does have a very generous amount of will power to combat stress and separation anxiety

  • mrramirez26 Jun 18, 2014

    I have binge-watched (or "marathon-ed" as I prefer to say):
    Teen Wolf
    Firefly
    Criminal Minds
    One Tree Hill
    Wonderfalls
    Veronica Mars
    Gilmore Girls (the first season only, then I slowed down)
    TVD (the first two seasons)
    BtVS (the first season only. I'm still working my way through the series now!)
    Don't Trust the B in Apt 23 (LOVE this one!!)
    HIMYM

    I've tried to marathon many other shows, but I'm hindered only by the fact that some shows (the majority of shows) I'm interested in, are only offered in DVD's, if I go through Netflix...so that's only four to five episodes at a time. Doesn't exactly count.

    Shows I've attempted to marathon but couldn't:
    Haven (Couldn't get into it. Overeager, I ignored the "4-Episode Test" rule-of-thumb, and just jumped in; but I found my mind wandering after S1 episode 5, and then realized I didn't really care about the show in the first place. Should probably try again.)
    Eureka
    the Law and Order/CSI/NCIS franchise (I can handle two of these in one sitting, at the most...they're just too legally-oriented for me; for whatever reason. Strange, because I like cop shows....just not these; even if they are considered the "Golden Three". :)

    Melissa's Marathon Rules:
    If possible, watch with box sets, or through Netflix...that way there are no commercials, and I have more time to get through the actual episodes!

    Take at least a twenty-minute break after each disc I finish, or every four episodes; and do something productive that does not involve a screen.

    Follow a regular eating schedule, with at least one piece of fruit. (This really means...a TV marathon is not an excuse for a day full of junk food.) Thou Shalt Not Starve Because of a Show.

  • efonsecajr Jun 16, 2014

    Binged on BSG, Arrested Development, and HIMYM. Loved every second of it.

  • WildPict Jun 16, 2014

    I always called watching an entire season "marathoning", but binge-watching works too. I'll binge watch every DVD series I buy or DVR, which usually means sci-fi series. I've binge-watched too many shows to list, but I've binge-watched Orphan Black, The Gates, Teen Wolf, Agents of SHIELD, and Haven recently.

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