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.