When House of Cards debuted on Netflix in 2013, it changed the TV industry in two ways. It was the first big-budget TV series with well-known actors that was available to anyone with an internet connection and access to the streaming service — no cable contract needed. And viewers could watch the entire season, all 13 episodes, at once.
It wasn’t the birth of binge watching, not quite. Anyone with access to a whole season of TV on home video could binge their way through entire seasons, one VHS or DVD at a time, long before Netflix. But this was the first time that a new show dropped an entire season at once, leaving pacing to the viewers, rather than the weekly TV schedule. And the world has been binge-watching TV shows ever since.
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I’m not here to tell you to stop binge-watching. We’re entering the third year of a global pandemic, the US is experiencing sharp inflation and every day is starting to feel like a survival test. If watching an entire TV series in one week is what keeps you going, don’t let me stop you.
However, I am here to suggest that if you pace your TV watching, you might just like it better than binge-watching. Here’s why.
The time between episodes is meaningful
Some of my favorite TV-watching memories don’t happen on screen. They’re not big action sequences or plot twists, nor powerful performances from the actors in the show. Instead, they’re the moments after the episode, talking to friends and family about what just happened, connecting it to threads from earlier in the series and speculating about what will happen next.
When WandaVision premiered last year, new episode releases were an event in my home. My girlfriend and I would grab takeout, watch the new episodes, and then spend up to an hour just talking about everything we just watched. Those conversations challenged our memories, attention to detail and creativity, and the experience surrounding the show is what I remember most fondly.
Binge-watching replaces those moments with the immediate dopamine hit from starting a new episode. For some types of shows, like reality and competition series, that might be a perfectly fine tradeoff. But for anything with dramatic stakes, I want the tension created by time between one episode and the next. Cliffhangers should pinch — that’s what makes the payoff worthwhile. The fun of seeing someone show up unexpectedly at the end of an episode, is pondering what it might mean for the next one. What theories does it confirm and which ones does it shoot down? There’s no time for that kind of playful speculation in a binge-watch.
If the magic of poetry happens in the line breaks between words, where your imagination has to fill in the gaps, the magic of television, to me, happens between episodes. It’s the connection we create with other people when we share observations, questions and theories. “What do these cryptic commercials in WandaVision mean?” And, sure, you can do that with shows you’ve binged, but it’s an almost impossibly large task to condense an entire season’s worth of thoughts into one conversation. Watching a show week-by-week gives you more time to think about what’s going on, to speculate about what’s upcoming, and to share those thoughts with other people. That kind of discourse has only become more valuable since the start of the pandemic, and one of the truly great things about entertainment is the way it unites people and offers a means of connection.
When you stop bingeing, the show stays with you over time
Binge-watching can be exciting because it’s a lot of information all at once. Meeting new characters and sometimes new worlds is invigorating, and binge-watching gives you that action in a concentrated dose. But it also crams that joy into a tiny, little box.
Watching a whole season of TV in one weekend is a fundamentally different experience than watching a show week-to-week as it airs. Binge-watching a show minimizes the amount of time you spend exploring that series — the amount of time it spends interacting with the rest of your life.
To me, there’s a little more magic in the “slow-watch,” and a big part of that magic is tied to the passage of time. Watching a show as it airs, especially something on network TV, means the characters are aging alongside you. For shows that run more than just a few seasons, you might go through significant personal growth during the course of the show, and you might find parallels in some of the characters you’ve been watching that whole time.
That’s one of the reasons The Legend of Korra made a bigger impression on me than Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both are amazing shows and some of the best animated series ever made. But I watched Avatar over a period of about two months, whereas Korra was actively part of my life for two-and-a-half years. And the passage of time — real-world time — added layers to Korra’s journey that I don’t think I would have felt in an abbreviated timeframe. Between the premiere and the finale, I moved across the country, made new friends, tried things I had never done before, and learned how to deal with failure. I wouldn’t have had time for all of those things in a binge viewing, and I wouldn’t have felt as connected to Korra doing those things over the course of the show.
Binge-watching doesn’t negate that character growth or your ability to connect to it, but I do think it offers a more limited version of those things compared to weekly watching.
To binge or not to binge
There are plenty of good reasons to binge-watch shows. Maybe you’re trying to power through a slow start or a bad season that would be agonizing for you to watch at a slower pace. Maybe your friends are terrible about spoiling things for you. Maybe you have limited free time, or maybe you just want to maximize your subscription to minimize how much you spend on streaming each month.
But, to me, binge-watching is the TV viewing equivalent of a fling. It’s a sudden burst of excitement that’s over quickly and doesn’t stay with you. Slow-watching a series is more like a long-term relationship — a commitment, and sometimes a test of patience, but also something more affecting and more valuable. And streaming services seem to agree: Although Netflix is still releasing entire seasons at once, Disney Plus, HBO, Hulu and Prime Video all release new episodes weekly.
So the next time you find a show you’re really excited about watching, consider slowing things down and letting yourself luxuriate in it.