Not for me.
That much is certain about one of the new ways of watching television that has been freed up by the technological and corporate revolution in the media world we’re living through.
I refer to what is now cheerfully illustrated in TV commercials and actually referred to in magazines as “binge viewing.” The subject comes up frequently – if indirectly – in the live online chats with readers that Jeff Miers and I do at 1 p.m. Thursdays when people solicit opinions of Netflix’s brand-new way of giving us new TV shows: dropping whole seasons of them on the world in one big clump.
They last did it with their remake of the British political series starring Kevin Spacey called “House of Cards.” Despite everything about its advent that was radically new, the show has had enough of an impact that a long semi-comic parody of it – featuring Spacey’s reptilian Southern pol in full political puppet master mode – was featured at last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
Ever since the advent of home video, it has been possible to own whole TV series, as if they were volumes of Wallace Stevens’ complete poems or a coffee-table book of Titian’s complete paintings. I must confess that as delighted as I am to have Tom Fontana’s “Homicide” complete on disc, a secretly prized possession of mine is the complete Lee Marvin “M Squad” on disc that rests comfortably on one of my stereo speakers. (Some people will understand; I could never begin to explain it to the rest.)
I find it more than a little disorienting, however, that there are actually people proud of their capacity to go on viewing “binges” – to watch, say, a complete season of an hourlong TV series in one sitting.
I’m sorry, but a 10-plus-hour investment in one sitting on one TV series is, to my way of thinking, more than a little dysfunctional. But then I’ve never been one of those at film festivals who goes around bragging they’ve seen five or six films in one day, either.
My limit – and I only did it once, never again – is five. My outer limit now, as a mature, sentient, reasonably sapient adult, is three in one day. After that, it seems to me, you’re in acute danger of remembering only a small fraction of what you really need to remember. (I have never forgotten when an elevator full of film critics I liked pressed me to accompany them to the immediate subsequent screening of a piece of total junk to which we were all invited after seeing “Schindler’s List” in New York. I declined as sweetly as I could because, frankly, I was in no emotional condition at that moment to be putting some piece of cinematic mega-dreck into my head. There are some movies that need to reside alone and comfortably there, surrounded by plenty of space. They shouldn’t be jammed up right next to alleys full of odoriferous garbage cans where so many rats have dived in looking for dinner that the lids refuse to stay on.)
“House of Cards,” from what I’ve seen, is good television by any assay. But there is no single TV series I know of, frankly, that I’m willing to spend more than three hours with at one sitting.
It isn’t all that uncommon, in fact, for networks and studios to send advance packs of as many as five, six or seven episodes of series to critics for them to view before they review upcoming shows. My own personal “three’s my limit” rule applies to them too. If it’s good enough, I’ll come back for more the next day – or next week.
The idea of people – literally – bingeing visually on TV series for the sake of some supposed amusement depresses me to no end.
Lest any fool think I’m some idiot Luddite decrying the merciless technological advances of the digital era, I must confess being immensely fond of everything the DVR has brought to TV viewing, chiefly the ability to 1) zap through commercials and 2) program our own evenings of TV watching rather than put up with the godawful scheduling incompetence of, say, CBS on Sunday nights (where overspilling sports push start times back at least a half-hour and fans of “The Amazing Race” are presumed to be in the same phylum as those of “The Good Wife” and “The Mentalist” that follow).
It’s just that the series “viewing model” established by TV in its primal era – one a week – turns out to be quite a sensible way to watch television. It’s still an intelligent way to watch, say, something like “The Following” even when a whole season comes out on DVD. There’s no way I want to see that show for more than three hours at a time. It’s a TV series, in fact, whose atmospheric overhang might only last for about three hours.
It has also turned out to have a much sturdier premise than I ever thought at first. Even now, when the serial killer/cult leader Joe Carroll has been blown to smithereens in an exploding boathouse, he wound up with so many murderous followers that the hero and heroine never know where they’ll turn up next. It’s a nice bit of TV about paranoia – sort of the old TV series “The Fugitive” turned upside down: two people vs. an ever-expanding number of killers that may include anyone and everyone.
The premise of TV’s “Golden Boy” has proved to be far sturdier than I thought at the beginning, too. It turns out that the office politics and family dysfunctions of a New York homicide squad can be fascinating when they all revolve around one sage veteran played by Chi McBride in his best growling grizzly mode – especially when you know that his partner/acolyte will, in seven years time, become the youngest police commissioner in New York City history.
Even so, when the time comes, nothing could ever get me to watch more than three episodes of “Golden Boy” in one sitting. No matter how much the technology and corporate expectations change in their “business model,” it’s unreasonable to expect all viewers to be infinitely malleable.
I’ll never, for instance, become a regular daily viewer of morning television the way so many are. It will never seem civilized to me. My mornings are spent with the newspaper, recorded music I’m reviewing, email I have to answer and pieces I’m writing for the paper. I watch TV only when I feel I have to.
And when I do, I never find it more depressing than when it’s overly bright and cheery.
For those fascinated by the world of morning TV, I heartily recommend Brian Stelter’s “Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV” (Grand Central, 312 pages, $28). a fine X-ray of ugly doings that has, so far, been distinguished by weird internecine disapproval in the pages of Stelter’s employer, the New York Times, where the guest reviewer of the book tsk-tsked Stelter for not quite measuring up to the putative immortality of fellow Timesman Bill Carter in his books on the late-night TV wars.
All of which, I suppose, may have some truth but is also crashingly irrelevant for such a revealing look at a part of the TV schedule that has probably never received the attention it deserves.
Let me put it this way: I’d rather read Stelter than watch morning TV regularly.