House of Cards, Netflix, long movies and short TV series

Jamie Weinman on watching a whole season at once

by Jaime Weinman

The release of the first season of the loose U.S. remake of House of Cards on Netflix, and the massive publicity Netflix has stirred up for its new method of releasing an entire season at once, has brought a lot of discussion about whether taking in a whole season at once is a good way to watch TV. Encouraging binge-viewing over watching one episode at a time, effectively, is a big part of Netflix’s campaign for the show, as is the idea that distributing one episode at a time is an outdated model: Beau Willmon, the head writer of House of Cards, told the New York Times that someday TV “might even dispense with episodes altogether. You might just get eight straight hours or 10 straight hours, and you decide where to pause.”

Now, some of this talk is inseparable from Netflix’s attempt to take on the cable TV dinosaurs, the same way cable took on broadcast TV. In other words, Netflix’s campaign can be seen as a form of trolling HBO, or at least emphasizing the things they can do that HBO can’t or won’t. There’s a big advantage in appearing to be the distribution model of the future, because if Netflix can convince the world that this is the future of television, then that makes it easier for them to grab the big projects. House of Cards would probably have been more or less the same on HBO or Starz as it is on Netflix, but part of what attracted the producers to Netflix was the promise of being a game-changer and helping to shake up the way TV shows are distributed. The argument at the moment is not so much about what these shows should be like, creatively, as what is the most forward-looking way to release them and the most forward-looking outlet for production companies to go with.

As for how we should watch TV shows, I’m a bit of a free-thinking anarchist on this issue. I think I generally prefer watching one episode at a time, maybe two, if only because I think it’s harder to maintain any perspective on a series when it’s taken all at once. Taking the episodes in slowly helps us to see where the show is going well or going wrong; mainlining a whole season sometimes means that all we remember is what happened, which is by no means the most important part of the show. After watching something for 13 hours, it’s difficult to know what the good parts or the bad parts are, or even to follow anything beyond the basic plot; everything blurs together.

Yet that in itself is a possible argument for binge-viewing. Watching an episode a week tends to inflate the importance of every episode, sometimes beyond what a single TV episode can sustain. This, I think, is part of the reason that we’re more likely to be disappointed by new episodes of a series when they appear once a week, and why seasons often look better when they go to DVD or to daily syndication. The shorter the wait between episodes, the less of a life-or-death proposition every episode becomes.

For episodic shows, binge-viewing emphasizes the overall feel of the show and the character interactions, and it somehow matters less that many of the plots are the same. For serialized shows, binge-viewing makes you focus on the big overarching plot rather than the strengths or weaknesses of individual episodes. Sometimes TV shows benefit when all the individual episodes blur together in our minds. Anyway, there have been too many alternate models of TV distribution – starting from the moment that weekly TV shows started being rerun on a daily basis – for me to say that watching an episode a week is the way to watch. Not in a world where we’ll happily watch an all-day marathon of shows where most of the weekly plots are sort of similar.

But while I think binge-viewing is a legitimate way of watching TV, I’m skeptical that it will eliminate the individual-episode model the way Willmon suggests in that quote. And here’s why: when you remove the old model of having to produce six to 22 weekly episodes, many seasons don’t actually have a compelling reason to be six to 22 hours. Almost every television season contains a lot of redundancy, or at least repetition, within a season, even totally serialized seasons with no time-outs for standalone stories. Plot and character points are stated and then restated and restated again; I’m not talking about exposition here (which I think some shows may be too eager to avoid; comic book fans often complain that comic creators are too reluctant to recap the plot and let us in on what’s going on, and I think the same thing may be in danger of happening in TV) but about ideas that we would understand just as completely if they were shown once, rather than three or four times.

This is not a problem when the season is divided into episodes, and even when you’re binge-viewing, you’re subliminally aware that what you’re seeing is a collection of episodes. But if it gets to the point that we genuinely treat a TV season like a movie, then the question becomes: how many movies need to be that long? Very few. It’s not just that commercial considerations prevent a movie from being 13 hours long; it’s that when you start cutting down the footage and preserving only what’s essential, cutting out anything that repeats points without expanding on them, you will probably wind up with three or four hours, not 13. Motion pictures, unlike novels, can make their points in very little time – the old “one picture is worth a thousand words” concept comes into play here – and while some pictures do need to be extremely long and repetitive to make their points, few of those movies are in the form of the relatively straightforward, plot-driven storytelling we see in most North American television. If the story of, say, Homeland season 1 were a movie, it would probably be about 150 minutes.

So if we get to the point where individual episodes don’t matter and seasons are all conceived as one big unit, then why would a lot of these seasons be 13 hours long? Sometimes, sure, for artistic reasons, but sometimes just because that’s how long these seasons are supposed to be, or because it’s easier to chop the things up and sell them to TV stations later – which means we’d be stuck in the old TV paradigm from the dinosaur days of the technology. An actual re-thinking of TV storytelling may require re-thinking whether some of these stories need to be done in the form of a TV season at all, as opposed to a long movie that tells the same story without all the repetition and re-statement endemic to the episodic TV format. Or maybe we’ll have alternate cuts, like the TV and theatrical versions of Scenes From a Marriage - make a 13-episode TV season and also prepare a taut 180-minute version for people who want to experience the same story in a single sitting. There are all kinds of possibilities. But to think that the future is, basically, a cable TV series released all at once is to forget that the form and shape of these cable series is based on the idea that the episodes are meant to be released a week apart from each other. To really re-think TV for new media, if such a thing is necessary (and I’m not saying it has to be), we may have to get beyond the idea that a story must be stretched out to fit a 13-episode season. That’s Old Media thinking.




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House of Cards, Netflix, long movies and short TV series

  1. The original House of Cards trilogy on BBC was 620 minutes (10+ hours), with each of its 3 ‘seasons’ divided into 4 episodes of 50 or 55 minutes. There’s no arguing that was a great series.

    Still, I think there is something enjoyable in a longer treatment. There short novels and looooong novels, and both formats can work well. Certainly many people enjoy just dwelling in the story, mulling around in it.

    There will always be an audience for long-form entertainment. A fifteen-hour live-performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen? Yes please!

    Anyway, I really hope this series does well and inspires more creative television.

  2. “As for how we should watch TV shows, I’m a bit of a free-thinking anarchist on this issue.”

    That’s not anarchy, that’s merely recognizing that, in future, people can or will approach television dramas in the same diverse ways that people have been reading books for years. Some people will devour an entire novel in a single sitting. Others (and I am one) prefer reading one chapter or less at a time. Still others (sitting in the “lavatory library” or riding public transit) may fit in snippets when or where convenient.

    The book format (divided into chapters) permits this flexibility. Why shouldn’t TV (divided into episodes) also permit it?

    • There are, of course, novels without chapter divisions. Admittedly, they are rare.

      But I think the convention of chapters and episodes is less about the ability of readers/viewers to absorb the story than it is about the writers needing to structure it their own narrative or other purposes (chapter breaks are used to shift perspective, etc).

  3. I think there’s an awful lot to unpack here in your article and I’m not sure of some of the conclusions. But first let’s talk HOUSE OF CARDS.

    I binge watched all 13 episodes over the weekend because I was sick. What made it especially effective wasn’t simply the ability to watch it all at once. What made it effective was one of the other bugbears you write about – running time. Freed from the tyranny of broadcast length, most HoC episodes clocked in at between 52 and 54 minutes. That’s 10-12 minutes more than your run-of-the-mill broadcast hour show. At that length, scenes are allowed to play out at a pace where you can build tension from the mundane. There is literally one scene where they build tension by showing an iPhone screen waiting to see if someone will text back. This happens in real time.

    HoC, like British series and HBO series, makes absolutely all it can of fhis extra storytelling real estate, and that tends to ameliorate the other great downside to binge-viewing: seeing the seams.

    When you have to construct narratives at the 41 minute length, especially with “act outs” that go to commercial, it requires a lot of shortcutting. There is simply no way to unspool the story without either using tropes the audience will understand (so you’re using their knowledge of TV to help you) or telescoping time, place, how long it would actually take to do something, or whatever. Most series build up a bag of tricks that they use to accomplish this – and the problem with binge viewing is that, it’s like studying a magician’s act close up. Once you see the sleight of hand you can’t unsee it and it’s not enjoyable anymore.

    House of Cards also benefits from being a character-driven drama. It’s not a procedural, with its need for an engine that unspools the story the same way each week. They do a pretty good job of coming up with episodic stories so most of the eps feel like they have a cohesion unto themselves. But they definitely operate more as chapters in a book than discrete “cases” or stories, a la Castle or CSI or NCIS.

    The knowledge that most of your audience has seen more than one episode or will be watching more than one is a strength, too, because it does free you from the need to recap every single plot point at the start of each episode. Contrary to what you write above, if you operate in a network environment today much of the time the prevailing winds are to not allow the audience member to be potentially confused for even a second. You will have bitter discussions — this in a mystery show, mind you — about whether you can keep the audience in the dark about something that they are going to find out in 30 seconds and one scene later anyway.

    Many of the just-picked up pilots I’m reading right now suffer mightily because they’re so concerned about not confusing the audience even for a moment that they bore you in the first ten pages.

    Binge viewing these kinds of shows quickly becomes the law of diminishing returns because all you see are the seams. And it’s even worse with a show like, say, Walking Dead, where you can see the narrative stall of Early season 2 happen right in front of your eyes all at once.

    That’s why HBO gets $80 for their box sets — because the viewing experience doesn’t trigger these feel bads. (Well, maybe True Blood. That thing has all the discipline of a lesser Baldwin brother.)

    As for your idea that story will reduce to 3 or 4 hours overall. I don’t think so. And I think that has to do with the difference between a movie and a good tv show.

    With a movie, you are building a house. If you do well, there’s a good hero story, maybe you go somewhere surprising in Act 3, and then you’re done.

    But we’ve already spent way more hours than we will ever spend with John McClane with Don Draper, or Tony Soprano. TV series, well built, are not houses — they’re villages — whole ecosystems from which a variety of stories might spring. Part of the joy is the slowness — while movies have gotten faster and faster, the journey of a character on TV is seeing what happens to them over the course of a season — and building in the time to predict what the important turning points were.

    (That’s not to say that films don’t build worlds; they do. But fundamentally that’s not what they’re about, which is why sequels so often have a hard time…people like the world, but the creators don’t know what to do with a new story in that world. See the Star Wars prequels.)

    The British used to solve the problem of audiences getting bored by shutting down the whole thing after a few “series” of episodes; it was the Americans that came up with the idea of theming the hero’s journey for the season. (This season, Dexter/Draper/Tony will do this.) There might still be some narrative back and forth and flow and ebb and stuff. But nobody who likes novels sits down and says, “I want this John Irving piece to please me and be fun but get there as quickly as possible.”

    What’s interesting with the “Netflix model” if we’re going to call it that is that dear old McLuhan pops up as being right again. New media don’t destroy old, they recontextualize. The Netflix model completes the journey of TV being more like a book, with discreet chapters/episodes. There have always been people who binged on books, reading it in one sitting, while others discipline by doling themselves the story out a chapter at a time. The difference now is that it’s not the maker who decides how you’re going to consume the work — it’s you. And that’s why ultimately I think Netflix is onto something. Because the Pandora’s Box that’s been opened in the last few years is viewer control of their own fate. And the more people get it, the more they want it. And I think they’ll pay to get it.

    • These are great points and I wish I could reply right now, but I will say this: I didn’t mean to imply (though I probably did anyway) that TV seasons are all padded out and could be cut down to 3 hours without losing anything. That’s like saying you can chop 5 minutes out of a TV episode for syndication and not lose anything as long as you only cut the scenes that aren’t strictly relevant to the plot. Texture and world-building matter as plotting (not on every show, though). But I was thinking in terms of the tendency I’ve seen in a lot of recent shows – and oddly enough, more broadcast than cable, where there’s more willingness to slow down for a change-of-pace episode like Breaking Bad’s “Fly” – to emphasize the linear forward momentum of a single story that dominates every episode. One of the reasons the seams can show when you put all the episodes back to back is that some shows really can feel like movies that have been padded out, rather than the SOPRANOS/MAD MEN emphasis on world-building over plot. And for some of those types of stories, a shorter, more compact form of storytelling might make more sense if they’re anticipating that more people will watch them in big chunks (though that might never be economically feasible, for the same reason it’s not economically feasible to make these types of stories into feature films – these things can be financed in the form of TV shows because there are many different ways to divide them up and sell them, and that includes making it possible to sell them as 13 separate episodes as well as a Netflix package).

  4. Remember there are infinite variations on how to watch this material. I find one a day maybe two if it’s on the weekend works well and you can appreciate individual episodes without missing tie in details useful for overall viewing. Incidentally, this is not much different from the way programs generally run in syndication.

  5. I intend to watch it shortly. My concern is that it may have been a risky move for Netflix to start with a political series, as even now they are still likely to be compared to early seasons of the West Wing, and are unlikely to win that comparison.

  6. No doubt this is a risk.

    Especially when view through Canada’s telecommunication oligopoly that produce something of value, once every 20 years.

    The rest of the time they just overcharge and buy up the rights to foreign shows, which can then be used as an excuse to block content at the border.

  7. The opportunity to watch all the shows in any season at one time does not mean that traditional TV shows (those appearing on broadcast, cable and satellite services) have to change. It does mean that they will have to have more compelling content in order to avoid being relegated to the second tier of customer preference.

    Shows like “24″ are perfect for binge viewing because each episode contributed equally to the overall plot and tempo of the story. “Modern Family” represents a show that is marginally dependent on watching the shows in a rigid sequence, and because each episode is not building to a season finale climax, it might not compel someone to spend hours and hours of viewing in one sitting.

    I watched seasons of “Breaking Bad” that were on Netflix as fast as I could. I purchased the rest of the seasons from Amazon Instant Video and it was a torture to wait seven days for the next episode. I am almost angry that final installments of “Breaking Bad” have not been made available. I hope the folks who control the release of the show don’t think they have done a good thing! Some shows have 2 hour season premiers and/or season and series finales. I also believe that some shows fit the “need” for binge viewing … others don’t.

    The phrase of the decade seems to be that “content is king”. I think that phrase will be amended to read “compelling content is king” when people are discussing releasing all episodes of a season at one time.

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