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.