A couple months back I encountered the newly released trailer for Stranger Things Season 2. Aside from the utter disappointment that came with the realization that the trailer was only a play on audience anticipation and gave no narrative information, I was disappointed in myself. Why? Because despite ranting and raving about the brilliance of this show, I had to stop and think, "What happened last season?" Blasphemy, I know. But this is the paradox of binge-watching.
For those of you who don't know, Stranger Things is Netflix's greatest success. Season 1 was an engaging mix of '80s nostalgia, sci-fi/horror hybridity, and beautiful character development.
Most people are quick to describe it as similar to the best horror movies of the 1980s, and although Stranger Things is a perfect example of this sentiment, the truth is that this is a period of time in which TV has become far more cinematic than it has ever been in the past. We are currently in a new age of storytelling that conflates the escapism of the cinema with the accessibility and interactivity of #TV.
The Cinematic TV Experience
We are presently experiencing TV in a way we never have before. Some go as far as to call it the Golden Age of Television, referencing the sheer quantity of quality TV available. Traditionally, TV has been thought of as the cinema's crass younger sibling. It was originally a space for variety shows and game shows, and eventually moved towards the sitcom. For a long time, TV shows were rigidly structured and predictable in a way that cinema was not. To be fair, cinema had decades to mature by the time the 1950s saw the birth of TV.
Though the introduction of TV (and later the VCR) initially worried the film industry, the fears eventually proved to be unfounded. Stats from the 1980s show that people actually attended cinemas in record numbers. There are different ways to interpret this, but what seems evident is that TV and movies do not cancel each other out. They offer different viewing experiences. Or, at least, they once did.
Back in 2000, historian and theorist Anne Friedberg wrote a critical essay aptly titled, "The End of Cinema: Multimedia and Technological Change." This essay highlighted the ways in which spectatorship had been altered, first by the advent of the television, then by the advent of the VCR, and finally by the advent of digital media. Astoundingly, her arguments do not feel at all dated when we think of them alongside the advent of content streaming. Rather, it seems she was prophetically telling the origin story of #Netflix.
The Netflix Invasion
For all of its game-changing brilliance, Netflix was actually a very simple and logical next step in the evolution of movie distribution. Today, the service is 20 years old, and in that time it gracefully moved from a national movie delivery service to an international media streaming service that also creates and distributes its own original content.
Today, the service has over 100 million subscribers, worldwide. We can casually discuss viewership in regards to Netflix with the expectation that it will not be lost on anyone. Better yet, we can have in-depth conversations about Netflix originals like Stranger Things with almost any person we might encounter at a party or bus stop. Simply put, that's insane.
But has this takeover gone a step too far? Anything can be detrimental in large doses, so it's reasonable to assume Netflix is no exception. In her essay, Friedberg discusses the way in which new forms of digital viewing likens the spectator to a user. Specifically, she is referring to the user-actions we perform while home-viewing, such as clicking with the mouse or pushing buttons on the remote to fast forward or rewind. This changes the dynamic between the viewer and the content — we are now engaging with it on a more physical level. Unfortunately, Friedberg died in 2009, before Netflix had really blown up, but the new dynamic to which she refers has become all the more apparent with the move towards binge-watching.
The term "user," as opposed to "spectator," implies a stronger sense of immersion (think, "user-experience" and concepts of interactivity). Binge-watching is a relatively Netflix-specific phenomenon, as the service is designed to accommodate mass consumption over a short period of time. Sure, we can claim it's about convenience rather than speed, but if we're honest, there is an unspoken understanding that, these days, a lot of us watch mass amounts of TV at once. We immerse ourselves into these universes, further disorienting the temporal-spatial paradox that is already inherent to TV/movie viewing.
The Temporal-Spatial Paradox Of Spectatorship
When we watch a movie, it tends to be an experience of escapism (with traditional narrative filmmaking, anyways). This means, we are, in part, taken out of our own temporal-spatial truths and placed inside of others. When I re-watched The Breakfast Club (on Netflix) last week, it wasn't just a Sunday night on my couch in Ontario, Canada in 2017, it was also a Saturday morning in a US suburb in 1985. When we watch a movie, we suspend our understanding of time and space in order to occupy multiple times and spaces at once. 90 minutes later, like a switch, we're back.
While TV has tended to have less of an escapist quality in the past, what with those rigid framing techniques and predictable story formats, the Golden Age has completely changed that. Nowadays, TV narratives can be epic, with long-winded plots, and a variety of complex characters, set across different times and spaces.
Most importantly, stories no longer need to conclude with a neatly tied bow at minute 23. Instead, shows are now being designed to last and to whisk you away for as long as it takes to deliver a well-crafted story. And, in order to not try our collective, ever-declining patience, Netflix gives it to us all at once. Hence, the new standard of binge-watching.
Is The Binge Counterproductive?
When it comes to binge-watching, overstimulation seems like an easy argument to make. Since the shows we tend to binge-watch are the more cinematic ones, with complex narratives and sensational visuals, we have to compare the binge to a filmic experience. As someone who spent six years in Film Studies (attaining a B.A. and then an M.A.), I count myself qualified to say: In a good movie, there's a lot going on at any given moment. There is a loaded diegesis with visual information to follow, dialogue to follow, and informative cinematographic cues to catch. It's no different with a quality TV show today.
The difference is, our brains don't get a break to process all of that filmic information after just a couple hours, at which point we can take time to reflect and move on. Instead, we binge multiple hours at a time, trying to process it all on the go. Then, after a satisfying 10-hour binge over the course of 2–3 days, we have no way of knowing how much we missed. Then, if you're like me, you see a trailer for Season 2, and you think: "What happened last season?"
Moreover, that sense of immersion one gets from a movie viewing — that displacement of time and space — means we may be removed from reality in a much deeper way during the binge. So, in effect, we may be simultaneously losing information from our own realities, as well as missing information from the narrative reality we've entered.
This new form of spectatorship is undoubtedly immensely satisfying in the short term as we are consumed by our consumption. But as for the long term, it seems worth wondering if the viewing experience may be losing some of its magic.
OK, time to wrap this up — gotta go re-watch Stranger Things.
What are your thoughts on binge-watching and the new Netflix culture?