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

Jamie Weinman on watching a whole season at once

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is a big part of Netflix’s campaign for the show, as is the idea that distributing one episode at a time is an outdated model: Beau Willmon, the head writer of House of Cards, told the New York Times that someday TV “might even dispense with episodes altogether.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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