Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Watch TV

Over the past ten years or so there’s been a seismic change in the way we consume serialized comic books and TV. Thanks to the rise of trade paperback collections and season DVDs, a lot of viewers are forgoing the initial release and choosing to ‘binge’ on a series after it’s been going for a long time. This can cause issues when a series doesn’t have the support to carry it along during its initial run, but it also leads to a dynamically different experience of the work in question. Some of my favorite TV shows were watched on DVD, and the switch from DVD to weekly release can be pretty jarring.

Side note, it really annoys me when people continually say things like “I don’t understand how they could cancel Arrested Development,” when of course they didn’t watch the show until several years after it aired. Maybe that’s why it was cancelled, since no one actually watched it when it was on. The same is true for Freaks and Geeks, Firefly and countless other shows. These are all great shows, but the reason they were cancelled is because people didn’t watch them.

Anyway, I watched all of How I Met Your Mother’s first four seasons over the past couple of months, and caught up to the point that I could watch the last few episodes live as they aired. When I started the show, there seemed to be a vast world of episodes out there for me, almost four full seasons to go through. I’d read online commentary where people complained about certain episodes, and I was like, chill, it was a decent episode, largely because when you watch a couple episodes at a time, the weaker ones are quickly forgotten and it’s the good moments that linger.

It’s a totally different experience watching a show on a weekly basis. With Battlestar Galactica, I watched the first two seasons in one go, and it wasn’t until I neared the end of season two that I realized there was a good long run of clunkers in there. Because I was just watching the episodes, the individual quality didn’t stand out as much. You see things more in big picture terms. When I watch the show on a week by week basis, each episode was a much bigger deal, and had to not only succeed on its own terms, but also move the overall narrative forward in some kind of meaningful way.

Watching How I Met Your Mother in short succession, I think I got more into the show than I would have watching it week by week. When I watch an episode now, what stands out is how slight the 22 minutes feel. I watch it, but it’s not quite enough time to draw me into the world. I still enjoy the show, but I don’t feel that same connection to it that I did watching a whole bunch in a row.

I think the shows that benefit most from viewing in rapid succession are weaker shows because they become more of a habit. I watched three seasons of Rescue Me in a row on DVD, but quit watching after watching the season four premiere live. Not having the next episode directly available made me realize, I just don’t really care about this show, and I have no particular reason to watch the next one.

I think that in many ways great shows benefit from having a week between episodes. Watching The Sopranos on DVD, it’s almost too much, you don’t realize the full impact of what the show’s doing because you’re racing to get to the next thing. Watching it weekly, you can savor each episode, and really examine what’s going on. The show is rich enough to support that kind of reading. I watched seasons five and six live, and was still really connected to the show, always anxiously awaiting the next episode. But, at the same time, I found the first part of season six much more satisfying on a DVD rewatch. ‘Kaisha,’ the season finale was incredibly frustrating when faced with the prospect of a year without a new episode. On a rewatch, I could appreciate the episode for what it was, and I now see it as a series standout.

Ultimately, I think you get the most out of a TV series when it becomes a hugely important piece of your life. When The Sopranos or Six Feet Under or final season Angel or The Wire were on, a new episode was always a high point of the week, and would leave me eagerly awaiting the next one. But, a lesser show isn’t going to have that kind of commitment and is more just sort of there when watched on a weekly basis.

What is the conclusion? I think watching episodes in rapid succession dulls out the extremes of a series. Your perception is of the whole rather than of the specific pieces, whereas watching a show on a weekly basis, you fixate more on individual elements. And, I think there’s a component of speculation that you don’t get when watching a show all in one go. I pondered and read countless Battlestar theories watching it air live, and someone watching on DVD won’t have the experience.

That said, ultimately a great show is a great show. And, when you watch seven seasons of Buffy is a few months, that can become your life in a way that watching the show weekly never could. I loved watching Buffy all in one go, but at the same time, I would have loved to have seen it live, and I’ll never have that chance.

No comments: