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
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
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
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
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?
AIRED ON 6/12/2015
Season 3 : Episode 13