Playing the Long Game: Thoughts on How We Watch TV
I’d always meant to catch up with “Breaking Bad”: the AMC drama has received almost nothing but raves since its 2008 debut, and many critics I respect cite it as one of the best shows on TV. When the show debuted three and a half years ago, I caught the pilot and at least one episode after that, but then I drifted away. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I didn’t make up my mind not to watch the show. I just got busy and kind of forgot. But a few weeks ago, relieved to be taking a break at the end of the regular TV season, I downloaded the first three years of “Breaking Bad” via iTunes, and I watched all 33 episodes in about a month. Everyone who’d praised the show was wonderfully right: it’s a phenomenal drama, a genuine powerhouse of storytelling loaded with rich characters making regrettable decisions based on what they think is right. It’s got conflict and loyalty, betrayal and lust, action and suspense. It’s riveting.
But what’s been on my mind since finishing the third-season finale hasn’t been the story so much as the way I experienced it. I’ve watched plenty of TV on DVD before, and I’ve seen a number of shows for the first time that way. But this was my first time watching a new (to me) series by downloading the episodes, and the surge of indulgence and control was like no other viewing experience. The advent of TV on DVD allowed for similar marathons, though they still relied on discs that needed to be changed out, and if you were renting those discs through a service like Netflix, you were still hampered by the number of DVDs you could get at one time. The digital version, though, had no such obstacles: sometimes I watched an episode in chunks over the course of a day, other times I watched three or four in a row. The convenience was staggering, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that I was consuming TV not just in a new way, but in a way that previous generations of storytellers never imagined would be possible or even desirable. I got to experience a novelistic, heavily serialized show as one coherent work of art, unbroken by the weeks that pass between episodes and the years that pass between seasons. I didn’t just catch up with the show: I did it in a way that few of its fans got to do. And I think this has some major implications for the way we choose to watch TV.
The biggest benefit is the obvious one: without having to wait for months or a year for new episodes, I was able to experience the series’ 33 (so far) episodes as one sprawling story. I was freed from the obsession and fetishism that drives fans to tear apart details minute by minute, trolling for meaning or clues or a sign that the show is changing too much or too little or just not behaving the way we think it’s supposed to. Pop culture is inherently tied to timeliness, but artistic quality exists outside of time. “Breaking Bad” is a fantastic show whether I watched it live from day one, whether I just spent a month immersed in it, or whether I wouldn’t have gotten around to it until long after it ended. Yet today we’re more fixated than ever on watching things now, on talking about them now, on predicting how they’ll fall apart or succeed now. That’s potentially dangerous. I love the passion that drives people to talk about their favorite shows — I’ll be contributing weekly reviews and analyses here when “Breaking Bad” returns in July — but I’m wary of letting that passion turn into bloodlust. The great and amazing thing about waiting to watch the show until now was that I was able to avoid all that. I was able to see the forest while enjoying the trees.
There’s another AMC drama that could benefit from a similar viewing experience: “The Killing.” The series is admittedly a flawed one: most episodes have culminated in a twist that’s negated in the opening moments of the next episode; some of the relationships have relied on frustrating silence (between husband and wife, detective and partner) that would easily be broken in the real world by regular people; some of the motivations are paper-thin and irksome, like the lieutenant who asked Detective Linden to stay in Seattle to work the Larsen murder then promptly grew annoyed at her for doing just that; etc., etc. But a digitally enabled experience in which the season’s 13 episodes could be viewed in a week or even weekend would no doubt let viewers see something that a weekly schedule forces them to miss. The series’ hook is that each episode covers one day in a murder investigation; by the end of the season, a little less than two weeks have passed since the body was found and the ball started rolling. But the series debuted on April 3 this year and will wrap its season on June 19, a span of more than two months. As viewers, we want to feel that a similar amount of time has passed for the characters, so when we see them still caught in certain emotions — a mother’s grief, a cop’s ignorance — we want to howl at them for being so slow. Our staggered viewing experience, coupled with our desire to break the bones and suck the marrow of every televised minute of every week, has led us to focus too greatly on the series’ errors and not realize that we’re often judging it against a measure it was never meant to meet. Would a new viewer watching it via downloads find it flawless? Doubtful. But they would be able to see it as one story, not a series of them. In our rush to examine our loves, we sometimes crush them to death.
Does every major modern show have to be watched this way? No. There’s still an undeniable addictive quality to living in the suspense between cliffhangers. Additionally, watching series as they air lets you take part in something bigger than yourself or your household’s viewing habits, as you talk with friends and coworkers around the world who are all having the same experience you are. I certainly don’t plan on abandoning my favorite series, or waiting until they’re finished and completely released on DVD to watch them. But I do think I’ve figured out a way to find a middle ground between poring over every frame of every episode of a season and simply waiting to watch them all in a rush. The key is to remember that each episode is just that: an installment that’s part of a much larger sequence whose impact cannot be felt until it’s fully revealed.
All of which is to say that while I’m excited for the return of “Breaking Bad,” I’m also going to be making a conscious effort to approach it and every other series I watch or review with a kind of mercy. Our modern TV shows — I’m talking about the really good and interesting ones here, not the procedurals like “CSI,” or most sitcoms — are conceived as major stories. If an episode doesn’t feel like it has any “payoff,” maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re supposed to remember to keep watching; to let the story tell itself to us, not the other way around. I’m grateful I finally caught up with “Breaking Bad,” which has already landed on the list of my favorite shows of all time. But I’m just as grateful for the way I did the catching up.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.