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Will Binge Watching Change How We Tell Stories on TV?

Comparing Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost in the age of Netflix.

Hannah Sternberg


April 18, 2014 - 11:27 am


Television has finally taken its place alongside film as a widely-acknowledged art form. For the last several decades, many shows have started telling the kind of complex, meaningful, well-crafted tales that are often found in film and literature. When Netflix and other streaming services transformed binge watching into a national pastime, TV critics and technology writers started asking how it would change the business model for shows. But another interesting trend is emerging: how it can transform storytelling.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the beginning. While this show pre-dates streaming video, it was an instant cult classic, and fanboys and girls have been binge watching before binge watching was cool, with VHS and DVD sets. As I rediscover Whedon’s most popular and well-known series, I’m also seeing for the first time how cleverly it’s set up to reward two common fan activities: multiple viewings of a single episode, and binge watching. Whedon sets up jokes in the first season that are subtly paid out in the second and third; he rewards attention to detail with little Easter eggs for the careful watcher; and he takes a low-and-slow approach to character development, as Willow grows bolder, Spike grows more sympathetic, Buffy becomes more jaded, and much more. Plus, all of Whedon’s shows display an impressive attention to continuity, another way to reward fans for paying careful attention.

As binge watching becomes more and more popular, more shows are using the storytelling techniques Whedon’s been a master of all along. But other shows prove to be less perfectly suited to binge-watching. Every week for the last several months, I’ve also been watching Lost with family and friends. While the multiple storylines and nail-biting cliffhangers make it addictive enough to watch episode after episode in a row, other aspects of the storytelling are much better suited to spreading out, one episode per week. Many episodes retread the same ground, which is necessary when seven days pass between episodes; but it can get a little wearisome when you saw the same thing just a few minutes ago. Many fans have also complained about the lack of resolution in some of Lost‘s mysteries. From the level of outrage I remember when the show ended, maybe spreading it out didn’t help a lot, but I can see how it’s easier simply to forget some of the mysteries that go unresolved when the last time it was mentioned was months ago, instead of hours.

Binge watching is hard on inconsistency and repetition (without variation). It rewards attention to detail, subtle character development, and ironclad continuity. As binge watching continues to influence new shows (and change our perception of old ones) it will be fascinating to see how TV storytelling evolves in these directions.


Hannah Sternberg is a writer and cocktail conquistador operating out of Washington, DC. Her second novel, Bulfinch, is now available on in paperback and Kindle formats. Relieve your itchy fingers and click here to buy it now.

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The End
"As Chuck said, endings are hard and the fans are always going to b*tch. I don't think any finale to an arc story this massive could ever satisfy all of the fans."
From Swan Song of Supernatural.
I never would have watched Supernatural or Lost without being able to binge watch on Netflix. Because I stopped watching TV when Happy Days was in prime time, I don't get a lot of references, but being able to watch several story lines back to back I can piece together more. I think it will be more demanding of the writers if they know we can really look more closely at their work.
I also know that the writers are delighted when they can set their stories before cell phone. It's been said that technology alone would have wiped out Seinfeld. See, tech changes the telling of stories.
Good post, thank you.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah, I think we will see – and are seeing right now – a split in how dramas are made and aired. Crime procedurals and case of the week network shows will still exist and thrive at ~23 episodes per season. This season length lets them do lots of standalone episodes while maybe threading in some overarching mythology. But because of binge watching, I think more heavily serialized dramas will continue to shrink in episodes-per-season since you don’t need 23 episodes for one unified story. It's interesting how TV is changing structurally.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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