So I've just simultaneously finished the first season of Dexter and watched the season 6 premiere of LOST (event-style, with fancy Thai dinner and friends), and the whole experience has made me unable to stop thinking about this post by the ever-brilliant Jason Mittell.
Specifically, I'm drawn to his argument about the affective difference between watching a show at a single bingey stroke versus spread out over time as the episodes are originally broadcast. Mittell spends most of the essay talking about LOST as a "box-ready" show: one that expects or even demands rewatching on the DVD format, but he has a brief aside about Dexter:
Boxed viewing can also prompt distinctive and even debilitating emotional affects, especially given the particular circumstances of spectatorship. Not only can the forced gaps of serialized distribution enable viewer speculation and contemplation, they can also help temper the level of emotional engagement. Many serialized programs use suspense and immersion to generate the desire for a viewer to keep watching, creating the binging impulse that many boxed viewers find so common and compelling; however, the distance from a story world can help dispel emotional intensity that threatens to overwhelm a binging viewer. For instance, I watched the first season DVD of Dexter in a 4-day binge, compelled by the twisty suspenseful narrative—while I loved the show, the intensity of imagery and disturbing scenes of emotionally scarred children was too much to take in over a short period of time, and has left me reluctant to continue onto the subsequent seasons. Today’s television storytellers need to create programs that remain compelling whether viewed in weekly broadcast installments or binged boxes, a distinct challenge that few shows have overcome.
When I first read Mittell's post, I was in the middle of season 1 of Dexter (I can't manage his pace, and the season took us about three weeks to make our way through), and anxiously anticipating LOST's season premiere. As such, I was much more emotionally engaged with LOST, not least because of all the energy I was putting into "speculation and contemplation." Honestly, watching LOST at a shot, I'm often less emotionally engaged, not more--the show's weaknesses, particularly the dialogue and acting, tend to bother me more when I'm not taking breaks (filled with obsessive speculation) between each episode. It's like a friendship that mostly happens on Facebook--my imaginary versions of the LOST characters are often more compelling than the real ones.
Also, I'm still attached to the idea of "event television": Tuesday nights were sacrosanct throughout Buffy's run, and I've felt the same way about Wednesdays while LOST has been on the air (my loyalty is back to Tuesdays now, but you know what I mean). This is actually still a big part of how I engage with a show. Sometimes I'm afraid this attachment to group viewing makes me a bad academic--I'd never make it through a season of Dexter in four days because I'm always watching shows with Ariel and she can't handle the same intensity of marathon television-watching that I can. A big part of how I engage with a show, from watching Twin Peaks with my parents in 1992 and talking about episodes the next day at school to the group WTF? that greeted the series finale of Battlestar Galactica is the sense that I'm part of an ever-evolving interpretive community. For serials (for me, anyway) the space between episodes is where I really make meaning.
At the end of his post, Mittell praises just these elements of "traditional" serial viewing--that we need to look for the benefits of both kinds of engagement with a text, and not let the pleasures of waiting get lost in the rush through a box set that has ever-increasingly become the primary way that people familiarize themselves with a show.
But here's the thing about binging: I, too, was completely overwhelmed by Dexter whenever we would watch more than one episode at a time. I'd have nightmares about it, over-identify with Dexter's endangered sister, and feel generally less steady in the world. And, come to think of it, I had much the same experience with Mad Men, but this time grief (which I would argue is that show's central affect) instead of terror. I knew, watching these shows, that more than one would make me feel overwhelmed and toxic, but I couldn't limit myself. It's different if I watch a ton of LOST or even shows that have better dialogue or more appealing characters (I'm looking at you, Buffy)--I feel gross, but only in the way that watching more than three hours of consecutive television would normally make me feel gross, not emotionally overwhelmed.
So I'm left wondering--what is it, exactly, that makes a show "addictive" but not really fun to binge on? Is it just about affect, which will obviously be different for different viewers, or is it linked to something more structural? (the kinds of questions left unanswered, etc)
I'll pose it as a poll, I suppose: are there shows you can think of that were just too much to take in particularly big doses? What, if anything, gets lost (as it were) for you in the transition from weekly installments? What is your favorite show to watch week-to-week? In one crazed DVD burst?