Thursday, February 4, 2010


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?


Dr Poppy said...

I've never seen Dexter, but as I told you the other day, I felt somewhat similarly about Six Feet Under.

But I really remember my initial experience of Mad Men -- the atmosphere was oppressive. I simply could not binge on it -- we started to do our usual watching of two or three episodes a night, but I had to cut it to one at a time. It became much more manageable when we caught up and watched it once a week. And yet, I still consider that show addictive.

We watched the entire series of The Wire this past summer, at the rate of at least one disk a week, usually two or three a week (one of those being on the weekend). That show became depressing as well at a certain point, but for some reason I had no problem watching many episodes at a time.

I think LOST is better spread over time for the reasons you mention. Primarily speculation -- without the time lag, you're just watching for the plot, which *is* admittedly most of the fun of that show, but trying to *work out* the plot and themes, trying to guess or figure out things that can't be figured out -- that's where the real fun comes in. Actually, thinking about LOST is often more pleasurable than watching it. Plus, as you said the other day, you often need a break from how stupid the characters act.

Overall, I'm very much committed to "event television" as you call it. I try to watch things "live" as much as possible. When I think about it, the only times I've ever watched shows on DVD was when I missed it altogether or thought I could catch up so that I could see it "live." I love looking forward to mid-week LOST (still feeling it should be on Wed), or Sunday night MAD MEN. Binging is fun, but I tend to prefer to savor my shows. We are even considering getting HBO so that we can watch David Simon's new show when it comes on in April! (Probably won't happen, but it's rare for us to consider doing that.)

Naomi said...

Dearest Anne:

Dudet, I love your writing. I shall now make reading it a regular affair! I abandoned Lost part way through season 2 (why in a moment), so I can't intelligently comment on 'to binge or not binge' on it in particular – at least not after the first season. I too still enjoy event television - for some shows - as I find the participatory aspects do indeed increase the overall value of the show (for me). It is a bit like a serial book club, where I can both prolong the enjoyment by rehashing/viewing it with others and be part of the hype atmosphere - be 'in the know' with all other watchers.

Lost – oy. Season one had be by the short hairs, I could not pry my eyes away. I came in to the show halfway through the season, and as soon as season one came out on DVD I watched as much as I could at a time. What soured me – especially after watching many episodes in a row, is that I felt like I kept being hoodwinked. The reveal was always around the corner but was no reveal at all, rather yet another fake trap door. It started to remind me a bit of the old days of watching General Hospital on days I played hooky from school… I think this effect was enhanced by watching episodes back to back – being reminded in quick succession that the reveal indeed fails to appear.

I fear I am babbling a bit. So, one more random thought: most shows I watch, whether serially (event) or a la binge, are done on my DVR. Once I am out of the immediacy of the event viewing experience, I tend to not have a very strong desire to watch the episode right away, and end up saving up a few before watching all episodes at a whack.

(Going back to re-read your post, then re-reading my comment, I guess I muy agree with you! – and I still think you are a terrific writer) :)