NEW YORK – Earlier this fall, when the Twitter-powered juggernaut “Scandal” premiered its third season, the show’s fans had no shortage of venues for taking in the next chapter in the lives of Olivia Pope and her team of political fix-it “gladiators.” They could watch in the privacy of their own homes, of course, or they could take their fandom public: Bars across the country hosted viewing parties for the occasion. In Washington, D.C. – the backdrop for “Scandal” – one such event, as described by Damon Young on the blog Very Smart Brothas, took on galalike proportions, featuring a red carpet, a doorman and parting gifts (which, for its overwhelmingly female crowd that eveninge).
Not every live-viewing event was quite as fancy as that one, but they all were part of a new tradition of communal viewing centered around TV series. Not long ago, the only reason to seek out a bar or restaurant with a TV was to catch “the game.” When televised events other than sports did warrant communal viewing, they were usually once-a-year offerings, like the Academy Awards, or season finales of major shows like “Lost.”
Lately, however, bars have been encouraging weekly communal viewing of everything from “Game of Thrones” to “Mad Men.” The move has coincided with the rise in “prestige” television series, especially those, such as “Breaking Bad,” which traffic in dramatic tension, surprise and catharsis, all of which can be fun – or therapeutic – to share with others. And there are other benefits to such experiences: For a TV consumer of certain tastes, being cable-less (as more and more people are) isn’t necessarily a hindrance. In New York City, for example, even a relatively omnivorous TV-watcher can find watering holes where she can take in her favorite programs, from “True Blood” to “The Walking Dead” to “Ru Paul’s Drag Race.” And if you’re lucky, you might also get to indulge in some themed drink and food specials in the process.
There’s also the opportunity to rub shoulders with your fellow fans.
I recently experienced my first communal viewing of a TV series episode in a public space – the show was “Breaking Bad” (specifically, the explosive “To’hajiilee” episode); the venue was a moderately sized pub in Brooklyn. By the time the episode began, the bar was standing room only, with probably about 150 people packed in.
Prior to arriving, I had been concerned that I would have to contend with a large group of distractible patrons who would in turn distract me with their chatter, or worse, those obnoxious viewers who throw in their two cents after every turning point. But the atmosphere was astonishingly quiet, save for the TVs blaring Walter White’s furiously unraveling saga. A couple of times during the course of the hour, some uninformed would-be patron would blunder into the bar looking to grab a mere drink, jabbering away to a friend all the while. But these interlopers were shushed and shamed by the “Breaking Bad” fans, exiting as quickly as they had come.
It was a highly enjoyable experience, one that felt unashamedly cultish and satisfying – collective cheers and audible gasps were shared during the incredible Mexican standoff that ended the episode. Overhearing other patrons banter during commercial breaks about their affinity for “Team Walt,” “Team Jesse” or “Team Hank” was the superior, real-life version of reading an endless stream of live-tweets espousing the same characters.
In the past decade or so, TV watching has in some ways become a more solitary act: Thanks to the DVR, to Netflix, and to the proliferation of tablets and smartphones, we’re able to watch what we want, when we want, with little need to accommodate friends or family’s viewing habits. Maybe that’s why collective viewing holds appeal: It offers a chance to bring back some of the old camaraderie, and simultaneity, of the TV-watching experience. We may be more disconnected from our own TV sets and cable boxes than ever before – but the desire to connect with others through our shared pop cultural affections remains. There’s nothing quite like bonding with a complete stranger over your hatred for “Breaking Bad’s” Todd Alquist. And as fun as it is to watch “Scandal” on a second screen, even the snarkiest tweet is a poor substitute for the real, live, exasperated groans brought on by Olivia and Fitz’s toxic relationship.