Maybe Netflix shows like House of Cards are better enjoyed by pacing yourself

I Didn’t Binge-Watch House of Cards and It Was a Great Decision

March 14, 2015 / by / 2 Comments

Let me start this essay by stating a fact about myself: I am not the binge-watching type.

It’s not that I don’t see the benefit in watching an entire season of a television show in one day; in doing that, details are fresh in your mind, and you, as a viewer, are able to make connections that you wouldn’t have otherwise made if you would have watched, say, one episode of said television show.

That being said, that’s not my style. I’ll maybe watch two, three, four episodes of something a day, then call it a night. Maybe I’ll watch multiple shows, sure, but I’ll never exceed around four episodes a show. I have other stuff to do, like read, or sleep, or play old Pokemon games, or whatever.

You can imagine then that I was not necessarily in a giant rush to plow through Season 3 of House of Cards when it was released on February 27th. Yes, I did know people who were going to finish the show in two days, three days. And good for them. I’m ok with that.

But when it was released, I made a vow to only watch one episode a day, each day, for thirteen days. And, good God, was it a great decision.

My rationale for this plan was as follows: House of Cards is a really good TV show. I like it a lot, and other people like it a lot, too. It’s not quite a cultural phenomenon like, say, Game of Thrones is, but it’s a widely popular show and the best thing Netflix has ever done besides the actual business idea of Netflix itself.

Because the show is “good” – and not good in a Hunger Games way, but good in a Lolita way – I wanted to savor it. Absorb it. Try to let the show breathe, the situations and characters linger with me, like the taste of a fine wine or a whiff of perfume. And in my mind, there was no way I could achieve such distance, such exhalation, by storming through the show in a half-week’s time. I thought that my enjoyment of the show, and my investment in it, would be boosted from this self-imposed pacing.

It totally was. Holy crap, it was.

Let me address the logistics of this task: I watched the first episode, “Chapter 27” on the afternoon of February 27th, the release date of the show. My saga concluded with “Chapter 39” on March 11th. Thirteen days. Thirteen episodes. And I am now writing this on that thirteenth day, mostly to pat myself on the back for such a great idea.

It is amazing how invested I became in the show. Every day I looked forward to watching another episode, to finding out when the season’s murder was going to be as well as when the season’s “weird sex scene” was going to be (both occurred in the last episode, by the way). The show moved at an ethereally natural pace – not too slow to be monotonous, but not too fast to speed by me in a blur. After wading deeper and deeper into the show over a nearly two-week period, I came out on the other end, completely satisfied and satiated and overall really damn happy that I did what I did.

But here’s the thing: Netflix is completely and absolutely the future of “television” (can we even call it “television” anymore if no television is required?). I’m not going to deny that. Nor am I going to deny that it’s more of a good thing than a bad thing – especially considering how the quality of TV shows, from an artistic standpoint, have drastically and dramatically improved over the past, say, fifteen years: See: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, True Detective, and, yes, House of Cards, to name a few.

It’s ironic, then, that Netflix creates and enables the possibility of one enjoying these shows – which one could, rightly so, declare as “art” – under hyper-speed conditions, where the goal is not to watch them to enjoy them, to open your mind in some pseudo-intellectualish way, but to watch them to watch them – and because they’re all there already, all in front of you, all waiting for you, there’s no excuse for you not to finish them as soon as you possibly can.

This is, basely, a cake-eating problem. If I bake a cake, and set it in front of a five-year-old, that five-year-old will eat as much of the cake as they possibly can. The first few pieces will be really awesome, but by the time they’ve eaten half of the cake, they’re going to feel sick, because you can’t just keep shoveling something down your throat and expecting it to be just as good as it was the last time. There are diminishing marginal returns with any pleasurable experience. Cake-eating is such an experience. So is, I argue, watching Netflix. And consumers are like five-year-olds: they don’t know when their goods start experiencing diminishing marginal returns, so they just consume as much of the good as they can. Which is dumb.

Is this the most ironclad analogy in the world? No, not really. But you get the point. Your mind – and body – need a break from enjoying a “good” at some point to let the good filter out of its system, so that it can enjoy it again. All goods become “bads” after a while.

The counter-argument exists, of course, that certain shows may indeed benefit from pacing; but those shows are the shows that were automatically paced by being released in one-a-week increments (ever watch two episodes of Twin Peaks back-to-back? It sucks. In succession they’re super repetitive, but as a viewer you can understand that, with six days in-between each, the redundancies inherent in the show wouldn’t exist). Neflix is producing its own shows. To benefit from its own format. That means it can, in theory, create the perfect binge-watchable show, right?

I mean, I guess so. But I see that as being really hard to do, because of the diminishing marginal returns thing I talked about above. After three and a half hours (the length of a “long” movie) it’s just hard to argue that moving forward is worth it. For example: Netflix, I think, tried to do this with the last season of Arrested Development. They produced vignette-esque episodes, full of extremely specific and minutely detailed jokes that a viewer would only understand if the episodes were watched in close succession.

The last season of Arrested Development also sucked, though. Sorry, twenty-something white people. But it was really bad. It was confusing, and tedious, and more of a chore than entertainment. It was like the Finnegans Wake of television shows.

Is it likely that Netflix will find a way to create a show that perfectly complements their business plan? Yes. Is House of Cards that show? No. Do I think binge-watching is a dumb and reductive experience, especially considering how incredibly good television shows are, and have been, this decade? Yes. Do you have to listen to me? No. But sometimes waiting for something isn’t the worst thing in the world. The episodes will all be there tomorrow. I promise.