Back in the old days, twenty years ago, we eagerly awaited the weekly episode of our favorite television series. In college, my friends and I would gather in someone's tiny room, crowding onto beds or the floor, to watch ER or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season finales, or worse, cliffhanger season finales, meant months of waiting before knowing what happened to our favorite characters. However, other then sweeps weeks or season finales, missing one week of our favorite show wasn't that big of a deal. We could just catch the reruns, and we wouldn't be lost watching next week's episode. If we really, really loved a show, then we might buy the DVD box set and watch it commercial-free. Way back in the day, television shows were an event we looked forward to, but they weren't our whole lives.
Enter the Streaming Services
When streaming television began, it was mostly older seasons of existing television shows. Yes, some of us binge-watched our favorite shows, but television was still largely episodic. While seasons may have had a larger arc or a big villain, most episodes were self-contained. Viewers could miss a week, or maybe even two, and still return to the show. However, before we knew it, streaming services started releasing entire seasons of original content at once. The method is tailor-made for binge-watching. Then, the way television shows themselves were filmed started to change. Rather than a collection of different episodes with a connecting arc, seasons became long movies. Even shows that aired or released new shows weekly went to the more cinematic format for shows. Now, for many shows, finishing an episode doesn't feel like an ending at all, and you have to remember everything from the last episode in order to understand the next.
Television Feels Less Fun, More Like Work
In the current entertainment climate, twenty-four-hour news cycle, and social media madness, watching television as soon as it comes out has become vital. If your favorite show released a whole season on Friday, you have to stay up all weekend watching it. Because you know that by Monday, at the latest, spoilers are going to be everywhere. Do you have a sick kid? Sorry, Twitter isn't going to wait another week to discuss that surprise ending. It's your parents' 50th wedding anniversary? Chatty Cathy doesn't care, she's still going to drop all the details over her sad desk salad.
Yes, some shows are still releasing weekly episodes, but that doesn't make them episodic. Missing even half of one episode of Game of Thrones meant you were completely unable to understand the next week's installment. And then you must pity the poor fool that has to take a break in watching television. Working from home while homeschooling your kids and trying to cook around the clock for a family of four? Yeah, that month you took off between streaming episodes means you have completely forgotten what's going on in the television show you were watching. You are now going to have to re-watch the whole season. And maybe take notes, because odds are you are going to be asleep by the second episode.
Wasn't This Supposed to Be Fun?
I love television. Seriously, I love it so much that I actually write about it and talk about it constantly. But, as a parent with two elementary-school-aged kids, a day job, and a part-time writing gig, I spend a lot of my time exhausted. The COVID-19 lockdown has only added to my workload. It has become almost impossible to stay up to date on even the handful of shows that I truly love. The only time I now get to myself is after my children go to bed, and I have to fit my entire adult life into those few hours. It would be lovely if, when I lay down at the end of an exhausting day, I could just turn on a beloved show and pick right back up where I left off with characters I love.
Unfortunately, there are so few shows today that are truly episodic. Even long-running procedurals and sit-coms have started becoming dependent on the cinematic, binge-watching nature of television today. On a positive note, watching new, exciting television as soon as it comes out while everyone else on Twitter is doing the same thing can be exhilarating. But, some of us just don't have it in us to stay up late or have kids that wake up at 5:30 am every morning, or are now stuck in a permanent quarantine cook-dishes-laundry cycle. By the time we get around to watching new seasons, episodes, or shows, it's almost not worth it. All of the excitement is gone. Everyone has already aired their opinion. And likely, someone has already spoiled it online.
I Wany My Episodic TV
Its time for the viewers to take television back. We are tired of binge-watching a season in a weekend and then getting nothing new for two years. Weekly new content is what we want. While we appreciate the amazing cinematography and effects of Star Trek: Discovery, it is fairly easy to only write one storyline for an entire season. Let's see showrunners and creators make 15-20 different episodes every season, with unique plots of their own. Sure, throw in a kick-ass season arc, but give us the fun holodeck episodes as well. Television needs to go back to being more like a fun escape from our lives and less like a 14-hour shift that you suffer through in order to make it to the end. Binge eating and binge drinking are known as unhealthy behaviors, maybe we should start thinking of binge-watching in the same way? We're binged-out! Bring on the moderation!