29 January 2012

Slow TV vs binge TV

What's the best way to watch TV? Getting the DVDs and marathoning dozens of episodes at a time? Watching as the show airs, one episode a week?

I've seen arguments for both. Mary Choi of Wired argues "In praise of binge TV consumption." Over at AV Club, Todd Van der Werff argues "In defense of slow TV."

I find that thriller, plot driven shows are better watched via DVD marathoning. If I had watched Alias as it aired, I would have been incredibly annoyed about the constant cliffhangers in the first season. Densely layered, character driven shows are better watched slowly. I have no discipline, so it's a lot easier for me to watch as the show airs. I'm not the kind of person who given a stack of DVDs, can limit myself to watching one episode per day.

When I blitz through a show on DVD, I miss a lot of details and it feels like a blur. That's no big deal if it's a mediocre show, but not so great if it was a good show that I actually wanted to delve into. (The problem with mediocre shows is that finishing them becomes a tedious chore.) Binging is frequently unsatisfying, in the same way I feel about gorging on a huge bag of popcorn. Not to mention the unhealthy aspects of watching TV all hours of the day, neglecting hygiene, and forgetting to eat.

The higher quality the show, the more I want to watch slowly. I still have fond memories of watching Battlestar Galactica as it aired (with the exception of Season 1 which I had to catch up with on DVD). I would run down to the basement TV room to catch episodes on Sunday nights. I remember being inspired by the episode "Flight of the Phoenix" -- at how people could find moments of heightened joy in the darkest situations.

Currently, I've been watching Homeland as it airs. I would usually make a first pass on each episode. This would satisfy my need to find out what happened next and I would register the highest emotions on the first pass. (This makes me think of how shocked I was to watch Carrie's manic episode in "The Vest" on my first viewing.) I would read the responses from TV critics, read audience comments, and peruse conversations on forums. People would mention details I'd missed. Then I'd go back watch the episode a second time. The second pass would be my detail sweep. Then I'd wait for the next episode and repeat the process. I wouldn't normally go to all this effort, only for a special show. It's a lot of work, but if it's a great show, I learn a lot. In this way, TV watching becomes a rich experience and not just a trivial diversion.

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