You Watch TV Wrong

How should we be watching TV? Well, according to Slate's Jim Pagels, you should not be watching big heaping marathon hunks of it because that ruins the purity of the show or something.

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How should we be watching TV? Well, according to Slate's Jim Pagels, you should not be watching big heaping marathon hunks of it because that ruins the purity of the show or something. Yeah, you are not allowed to binge out on Friday Night Lights or Weeds or Supernatural (yes, Supernatural), even if you want to, because it damages the integrity of the experience. Pagels says the "guidelines" for catching up with a show are "a minimum of 24 hours between episodes and at least a couple weeks between seasons." Oh, OK. There it is. New rule.

But wait! Not so fast! Linda Holmes over on NPR's Monkey See blog says that Pagels is just trolling and that who the hell cares how you watch a damn show? Watch it all in one sitting, watch it spread out over several decades, it doesn't matter. Where Pagels is a prim structuralist, Holmes is an anarchist. It doesn't matter how you watch the shows — there are no rules! — it just matters that you watch them. And watch them you should (particularly Breaking Bad, the season premiere of which (this Sunday) was the jumping off point for Pagels' treatise). Meanwhile Time's James Poniewozik fully supports binge watching, saying that Pagels' rule-setting is "fussy authenticism." And he is right! And Holmes is right. But is Pagels wrong?

As a professional television watcher (yes kids, the dream can come true!), I pretty much have to watch things week-to-week. Gotta stay current, etc. The TV binge is a nice luxury — I fondly remember watching all of Lost's first season in one glorious, bleary eyed 36-hour period seven years ago — but it's not one I get to indulge in all that often. Mostly I'm doing the week-in, week-out slog that everyone used to do in the old days known as the 1990s. And yes, there is something sequentially gratifying about that process. The weight does feel a bit heavier when you've experienced a show over a period of time, reaching the end months after you started. It's one of the chief reasons I still watch American Idol — though you've just been sitting on a couch dribbling out of your mouth and clapping sadly, you feel like you've actually accomplished something when the season ends, because it was done over time. Hard, brittle winter has turned to blushing spring and an Idol has been crowned and we all did this journey together. It's experiential! And the timing of it is important.

That's less true of scripted series, certainly, but it's not completely unimportant. Like, you could still feel the flutter of heart and soul when Tyra reads her college essay on Friday Night Lights if you've just watched the previous season on your bed that day, but doesn't it have that much more power if it's coming after a long, meaningful journey? Isn't there something to be said for the meting out of entertainment — whether it be suspense, romance, comedy, whatever? (Well, comedy maybe doesn't count. Comedy is actually probably better when scarfed down in gleeful piles.) I'd say that there is. When The Sopranos or Sex and the City ended, those being the first two shows that really got this whole "TV As Art" thing started, we were moved not only because the endings were effective (I don't care who you are, Carrie disappearing in the New York crowd while "You Got the Love" blared was just good TV), but because we'd just spent so many years with these people and now they were finally, surrealy gone. Gone! I'd wager you can't feel quite the same sweep and scope if you've just devoured the show in a few couch-buried sittings.

This isn't necessarily true of all shows, of course. I recently watched the entire first season of Cinemax's truly ridiculous Strike Back in one deep-fried day and that was just fine. That's all rock 'em sock 'em jingo jangle; there's no timing or nuance required with that one. And a show like Lost, that tangled gnarl of red herrings and MacGuffins, maybe fares better when all the mysteries are condensed and shoved into your brain at once. After my first season spree I was forced to watch the damn thing in real-time and by the end of season four I had no idea what had happened in season three. Shows like Lost — and Battlestar Galactica, let's say — are good binge fodder. But something like Mad Men, which unfolds with elegant precision and demands a little thinking time, is probably best savored slowly. Some things you can rush through, others demand a little more; you really gotta take in all the detail of the scenery.

This is no knock on the binge. There is no more exciting or comforting TV feeling than settling into something good and knowing that there are unwatched episodes stretching out as far as the eye can see. It's just that Pagels does have a point about the way our brains process things, and that maybe certain programs are better enjoyed with a bit more digestion time. But! Fastidiously finger-waving and telling people that there's a Right way to watch television is a foolish thing to do and sucks exactly all of the fun out of what should be a mostly fun pastime. (Sorry baseball, I think TV's taken the nation.) Holmes and Poniewozik are certainly right in that regard.

But back to Breaking Bad. Have you watched this masterful show? Well, the first half of the final season is premiering on Sunday and if you're not caught up, get thee to a computer or DVD player or whatever. Because it is must-see. And, interestingly, it probably holds up just as well in large clumps as it does over time. The experience might be different — waiting months, if not a year, to see the resolution of a giddy cliffhanger is its own experience, but so is barreling through it all at breakneck speed. Again, the point is that this stuff deserves watching. But it doesn't need rules.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.