Binge-Watching TV Is Like Reading A Novel

And it’s the best way to consume the media.

Over the last few years, binge watching television shows has become my preferred way of watching TV, and I don’t think I’m alone. I’m so glad that I only took up Breaking Bad once it’d finished its on-air run since I got to binge it over a few months on Netflix instead of having to wait for installments. Watching Better Call Saul in the traditional manner, while I love the show, kind of sucks by comparison. If nothing else, it’s a vastly different viewing experience.

And then there’s Daredevil, House of Cards (which I watch despite my better judgement), and all the other straight to streaming shows.

I got to wondering recently about why this is such an enjoyable way to watch a show.

There’re a couple easy explanations, often thrown out in other media discussions, but which I don’t think hold here. Short attention spans (who wants to take 6 months to watch a season?) and immediate gratification (I want this story and I want it now) are the two big ones.

But I think we like binging shows because it’s like reading a novel.

Rather, I think we like binging because it shares an essential quality of reading a novel: we get to live with the story for a while.

When you have one episode a week, you can and probably do let the story slip from your mind for most of the week until the next one airs.

That’s not so with a novel, which most people pick up almost every day while they read it, and it’s not so with a show that’s all available at once. These media become a bigger part of our daily lives, be it for a shorter time. I think that intensity makes the consumption of the story more enjoyable, that the bright flash is better than the slow burn. Otherwise novels and streaming shows wouldn’t be so successful.

It is, basically, a denser and more unified experience.

Breaking Bad: The Best Binge-Watch Ever

Philip Roth once said, in lamenting the decline of the novel in American culture: “To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really.” He said this in an interview wherein he said that the novel couldn’t compete with the screen, but in a real way the screen now often holds to the same rule: if you watch a show in more than two weeks you didn’t really watch it.

For me, this is exemplified by my experience with The Wire. I like The Wire, started it after its initial run, and watch it exclusively on the HBO app — but I started season four right before my son was born, and it’s rare that I get to watch an episode anymore. It’s been five months, and I’m not done the season yet. It almost feels like I haven’t watched it compared to the other three seasons, which I watched in about two months total.

So this quality of living with a narrative seems to be something we really do enjoy as consumers of media, and one which I think leads to a more complete experience. I hope it keeps up, gets more popular — I’d actually be a fan of all shows being released in the Netflix style, and my TV consumption being more like my literary consumption.

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