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Streaming TV like a novel

Posted December 21, 2015 into Telly by John Birmingham

I’ve been watching a couple of eps of Justified most nights since school holidays began. Usually on my iPad and either as an alternative to whatever the kids were doing on the big screen, or after we’d all watched something together. (Usually The Flash or Elementary, but recently Thomas has been getting into Life on Mars as well).

I’ll write something separate about Justified, which is a great modernisation of the old western genre, but a couple of times while I’ve been moving through the series I had a nagging feeling that streaming it (on Stan) was less like watching traditional TV and more like reading a novel. I got no further than jotting down a couple of ideas for a blog on the topic, before New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik beat me to the punch with this long, considered essay on that very theme.

Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours.

He has a lot of smart things to say about the different effects of scheduling on how we receive a story, using the example of Breaking Bad to make the point.

When you watch a series weekly, the time you spend not watching — mulling, anticipating, just getting older — is a part of the show. “Breaking Bad,” for instance, is the story of a man’s descent, or rise, from ordinary life to murderous criminality. In narrative time, the story takes about two years. Watched live on AMC, it aired for more than five years. Binged — as many late-joining fans saw it — it took maybe a week or three.

The live viewer saw Walter White’s change distended, in slow-motion; little by little, he broke badder and badder, in a way that emphasized the gradual slope of moral compromise. The binger saw him change in time-lapse, in a way that suggested that the tendency to arrogance and evil was in him all along. Neither perception is wrong. In fact, both themes are thoroughly built into the show. But how you watch, in some way, affects the story you see.

But it was that insight about streaming TV as a ‘novel reading’ experience that really stuck with me. It even mirrors the way I read books, dipping into and out of a couple of titles at the same time. I’m currently also watching Jessica Jones, Breaking Bad and iZombie, but not regularly as Justified.

16 Responses to ‘Streaming TV like a novel’

beeso asserts...

Posted December 21, 2015
We liked Justified enough that one of the twins was named Raylan. The other one was Helo. Bonus points for whoever gets that reference. *we binged a lot of TV during that pregnancy once The Wife was told she had to limit movement.

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted December 21, 2015
I'm guessing rebooted Galactica for Helo.

beeso has opinions thus...

Posted December 21, 2015
Yep. We actually thought, despite the huge disparity in subject, that the characters were remarkably similar in traits.

insomniac puts forth...

Posted December 21, 2015
If Ms insomniac and I were to ever have had children together, I can just imagine what she might say if I tried to name it or them after TV characters. Well known, recently retired All Black number 10s; that's something she would consider.

beeso reckons...

Posted December 21, 2015
It was a direct response to the pregnancy (twin, complicated, problematic) and the way they were born that fit what we wanted in a name. Plus we dislike names that are common.

dweeze swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted December 21, 2015
Just finished series 2 of Justfied. It's getting pretty darn good and Raylan is an ace character. An ex of mine was adamant tha ther first born would be named after her favourite band - Alice Donut. Well, we split and she only had boys with her new fella, so I guess they are somewhat lucky.

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Lulu is gonna tell you...

Posted December 21, 2015
"When you watch a series weekly, the time you spend not watching —
mulling, anticipating, just getting older — is a part of the show."

Yes, x 10. It also affects shared experiences. If we're all watching it at the same pace, same time, then we discuss it with each other during the week between shows.

Dave W asserts...

Posted December 21, 2015
I recall Da King explained producing the Green Mile in serialised format- something like that when Dickens was writing serials for a newspaper there was a near riot on the docks in America (Boston? New York?) when the ship was arriving.
The power of anticipation and a shared experience was something that he was interested in, as well as the challenge of meeting the deadlines.

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Madmaximus mumbles...

Posted December 21, 2015
Justified had the best dialogue on TV. Raylan was not hero, or anti-hero like Walter White just a bit of an asshole attempting to do the right thing most of the time. Made him more interesting and very believable.Damon Herriman as Dewey Crow was amazing. Was shocked to see Dewey Crow in an Aussie TV show after watching Justified for a couple years, had no idea he was an Australian. And great to see Walton Goggins getting into the latest Tarantino flick!An underrated classic, just wish I could convince some of my mates to give it a go.

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insomniac is gonna tell you...

Posted December 21, 2015
Very OT but having been dragged into the fruit factory universe in more than one way in the last 24 hours, does anybody have recommendations on iPhone cases?

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted December 21, 2015
Which model?

insomniac puts forth...

Posted December 22, 2015
5s

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted December 22, 2015
I used a basic Speck cover on mine for ages. Cheap and protective.

insomniac has opinions thus...

Posted December 22, 2015
Thanks. I was sort of leaning that way already so will now topple over.

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Barnesm would have you know...

Posted December 22, 2015

Intriguing piece, no doubt the first of many trying to explain how streaming services change the way stories are interpreted and how they can be used.

If you would care to see how watching Breaking Bad in a single sitting effects the viewers perception might I recommend this.

I don't know if I agree with the authors assertion the "streaming services have yet to create a truly great drama. I am sure we would all have a suggestion.

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boscolamb mumbles...

Posted December 22, 2015
So happy to see Justified spotlighted. The chemistry and (and almost poetic) dialogue between Raylan and Boyd makes this incredible to watch. The supporting cast doesn't have a wasted (or miscast) character. You know it's so good when every show ends, and you're left wanting to watch more. I envy those who binge watch it. I so miss this show.

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