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I'll Watch My Stories Howsoever I Damn Well Please

By Seth Freilich | Think Pieces | July 10, 2016 |

By Seth Freilich | Think Pieces | July 10, 2016 |

So I’ve been hanging out in the Pajiba mothership the past few days and upon commenting to Dustin that I felt like I should write something for the site, sitting right next to him and all that, he immediately yelled that I should write about Wayne Brady. Right now as I write this, there are twin Pajibabies gurgling and cooing at me. It’s adorable. But I don’t really do baby adorable so well. This Wayne Brady story, though, involves snark, racism, politics, black hookers, and smacking the sh*t out of someone. I also find that adorable, and that’s the kind of adorable I do well.

But then, as I was gearing up to write about this Wayne Brady/Bill Maher kerfuffle, I got enraged by a Slate article I came across. So here’s the quick down and dirty on Wayne Brady to appease Dustin — on the lovely Aisha Tyler’s podcast, Brady went on a rant about the fact that Bill Maher thinks Obama sometimes acts like a “white” black man, referring to him as “Wayne Brady” in such instances. It’s a two minute rant culminating in: “If Bill Maher has his perception of what’s black wrapped up, I would gladly slap the sh*t out of Bill Maher in the middle of the street and then I want to see what Bill Maher would do.” He’s in the right to call Maher out over his complaints that the President isn’t “black enough” and referring to Brady, essentially, as a white-washed black man. The rest of his rant, though, is a bit over the top:

Again, I don’t disagree with the main point of his underlying critique of Maher, but his overall delivery leaves a bit to be desired. But speaking of smacking the sh*t out of somebody, I want to smack the sh*t out of this Jim Pagels guy after reading his Slate missive decrying binge TV watching and audaciously claiming that for every single television viewer there is a “much more satisfying” way to watch TV. (Dustin asked how I was going to segue … Dustin, may I present segue!)

Go read Pagel’s article and come back. If I’m going to flame-bait, the least I can do is give the guy your pageviews (not that Slate needs Pajiba’s help for clicks). As you’ll see, he calls TV binge-watching a “pandemic” and, in focusing on how “America’s unprincipled youth have flocked to the latest trend,” seems to think that it’s a juvenile way to enjoy television. He then has the balls to declare that “there’s a proper way” to watch television, and claims that binge-watching “destroys” the experience for five reasons. Let’s look at these reasons.

“1. Episodes have their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row.” Yes, sure, some shows are purely episodic in nature, and even some of the more serialized shows still have episodic beats and flow in their individual episodes. But the notion that episodes lose their integrity when you watch a few in a row is like saying that you can’t appreciate the interplay of melody and harmony, and the overall flow, of all the songs on an album by listening to them together, because the individual songs get blurred by the experience of listening to the whole album. That’s f*cking ridiculous. Some shows are so serialized that their individual episodes actually suffer for it, making binge watching the preferred way for some to watch those shows (but, again, I’m not going to deign to suggest that this is the “right” or “proper” way to watch these shows). But a show like “Breaking Bad,” which expertly arcs each episode as well as the season, I don’t think a smart viewer loses anything watching episodes back to back. You can still enjoy how an episode flowed and, when it’s done, you are simply getting the immediacy of enjoying how it flows into the next episode.

“2. Cliffhangers and suspense need time to breathe.” This isn’t an entirely wrong point. It is definitely fun to ruminate on things between episodes and between seasons. Pagels notes the suspension in so many episodes of “Homeland” and says that [much] of the pleasure it provided came from wracking one’s brain each week—and changing one’s mind multiple times—trying to decide whether or not Brody was a double agent,” a pleasure that “evaporates when you simply click ‘play’ on the next episode.” The simple fact of the matter is that while some folks spend the week in between episodes ruminating on something like this, I suspect many do not. If I want to take a break between episodes to chew on some plot points, that’s my decision. Not yours. As for cliffhangers, the sad truth is that the vast majority of cliffhangers are resolved in a wholly disappointing way. Having to wait a week or a summer to face that likely disappointment (or the the surprise of the occasional brilliant resolution) isn’t necessarily a blessing and there’s totally something to be said for jumping right in to the resolution and ripping the band-aid off. Lastly, this point presupposes that everyone likes living in the suspense of the in-between episodes, and I suspect that for many folks this simply isn’t true, particularly in our era of instant gratification. There is no right or wrong here and it’s hubris to suggest otherwise. Why would Pagels deign to claim to know better?

“3. Episode recaps and online communities provide key analysis and insight.” Ah, OK. Is it that he feels threatened because online commentary may not have as much import when folks binge-watch? Pagels says that “TV recaps really do enhance one’s experience of a TV show.” I agree completely, for my own personal watching experience and for some shows. When I watch a smart drama, I love running to Netflix to see Sepinwall’s breakdown of the episode — he’s the unquestionable king of that art, no disrespect to our own recappers here (who I also read as well for many shows). But the vast majority of TV viewers never engage with any online community. They either don’t know about them, or they don’t care. So the vast majority of binge-watchers are missing nothing. Pagels also ignores the fact that many shows do not have, or do not warrant, the kind of in-depth analysis that something like “Breaking Bad” gets. “30 Rock,” for many seasons, was a great comedy. The “analysis” of an episode of “30 Rock,” even to someone who wholly appreciates such discussion, simply isn’t as “necessary” to the viewing experience as the breakdown and discussion of the latest episode of “Breaking Bad.” And, get this — Pagels recognizes that, even if you’re binge-watching at home, “you can still take the time to read recaps of nearly any episode on” a host of sites. So what’s his f*cking point? If I’m binge-watching and appreciate online discussions, I’ll pause between episodes and see what folks had to say. I’ve done that, in fact. So how is this whole point a supposed strike against binge-watching? Again, I can only suppose that it’s because Pagels feels threatened with specter of irrelevance.

“4. TV characters should be a regular part of our lives, not someone we hang out with 24/7 for a few days and then never see again.” OK, this may be his dumbest point:

I feel like I grew up with Michael Scott, because I spent 22 minutes a week with him every Thursday night for seven years. A friend of mine who recently cranked through all eight seasons of The Office in two weeks (really) probably thinks of Carrell’s character like someone he hung out with at an intensive two-week corporate seminar and never saw again.

That’s god damned idiotic. If you feel like you grew up with Michael Scott, that’s more a sad statement about yourself than a statement about how the rest of the world should watch TV. I watched “The Wire” week-to-week when it aired, while most of my friends watched it later in a binge. I would never claim that I have a “deeper” connection or relationship with the characters because I hung out with them over a five year period while my friends were only with them for a few weeks. Did I have a different viewing experience and perhaps a different perspective on some things? Of course. But they love Bubbles just as much as I do, and our “connection” to Bubs and the others is no different despite our different viewing methods. A good show with good characters will connect with a viewer however the viewer watches.

“5. Taking breaks maintains the timeline of the TV universe.” Never mind. This is his dumbest point, as he begin by noting there are “many exceptions to this rule.” Sure, a few shows are structured in a way that there is time between the episodes, sometimes even the same time as between when two episodes aired. Most shows simply have an amorphous “some amount of time” between episodes, while many others change and are all over the place. “Breaking Bad” has episodes that are very close to each other. So did “Lost.” “Mad Men,” meanwhile, has months between episodes. Should I binge “Breaking Bad” to keep the timeline, while DVR’ing “Mad Men” and watching only one episode every two months? This again presupposes that television viewers are complete f*cking morons who can’t appreciate the fact that, even though they’re watching two episodes back-to-back, the TV timeline may not flow the same way. Most of us learn this with books in like the second grade.

Our own Dan Carlson touched on this very same topic a while back (perhaps not so coincidentally, also spurred on by “Breaking Bad”) and he came to a different conclusion. He found that some shows benefited from binge viewing, not just from the perspective of viewer convenience, but because they allow the viewer to digest a “heavily serialized show as one coherent work of art.” Pagels would have you believe this is somehow a wrong and inherently improper thing which, of course, is horsesh*t. But Dan went on to acknowledge that not all shows would or could benefit from a mad-dash viewing, and I think he’s right on this point.

In other words, it boils down to this. Watching in a true episodic fashion, versus binge watching, are two very different experiences. But just because two things differ doesn’t mean one need be right and the other wrong, and certainly not to the point of absolutes. Pagels has offered an immature analysis of a rather important thing, the nature of society’s changing viewing habits. Some TV creators appreciate these changing viewing habits and work very hard to appease weekly viewers while also serving a greater story arc. And they do it very well (see “Breaking Bad” or “Justified”). But sometimes, shows suffer from this approach (see “Battlestar Galactica”). Pagels seems terrified of the notion that we may be marching to point in time when at least some shows are offered in a season single-serving, but I think it’s for the better. And until we get to that point, if I choose to watch a show all at once, that’s my choice. Neither Pagels nor the show’s creator nor anyone else can tell me that I’m right or wrong in this approach. If I enjoy and appreciate the show, it’s served its purpose as art. To suggest that I must take a break between episodes and seasons, as Pagels concludes, stinks of a “get off my lawn” mentality.

All of which is to say, in the words of Wayne Brady, “if Jim Pagels has his perception of how TV must be watched wrapped up, I would gladly slap the sh*t out of Jim Pagels in the middle of the street and then I want to see what his online analysis of that episode of his life would be.”

(Begrudging hat tip to HuffPo for the Wayne Brady story. Loving hat tip to News for TV Majors for the link to the Slate piece.)

Seth is a Senior Editor and sometime critic. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.