The New York Times critic James Poniewozik’s take on The Path was particularly apt (and telling): “I could see it having a strong second season.” That’s the new reality of the medium—it can take a whole year before a show even needs to be good, which has unfortunately led to pervasive issues with pacing and plotting that hurts the overall viewing experience for streaming audiences.
Poniewozik has written more extensively on the topic, noting that streaming networks don’t have to worry about the situational strictures of broadcast television. A viewer can discover a show at her own pace and (more than likely) watch it all at once. A streaming network exists simply to offer a broad repository of content for subscribers to check in with, rather than a daily deluge of explosive plot twists and special guest stars to keep people tuning back in. Even comedies like Netflix’s BoJack Horseman have this type of structure—one episode viewed in the abstract might be mildly funny, but watch the entire season in a short burst and it feels suddenly like a work of art.
There’s a strange loyalty demanded by a show like BoJack (which is outright bad for its first few episodes before gathering steam) or The Path. Sure, nothing much happens for the first six or seven hours, but the viewer has to be trusting enough to know that their patience will be rewarded. “Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, has said he considers the first season of a series, not the first episode, to be the ‘pilot,’” Poniewozik noted. It’s an insidiously clever approach: You need a whole season to decide whether or not you like a show, and by the time you’ve watched all that, you’re in too deep to turn back.
It’d be easy to pinpoint the premiere of Netflix’s House of Cards, with its ominous title “Chapter One” (it’s up to “Chapter 52” now), as the ostensible beginning of this trend. But Netflix was simply playing into viewer patterns it had already identified from how people watched other shows in its streaming database. David Simon’s masterpiece The Wire, which ran on HBO for five seasons in relative obscurity, was the original and best example for the critics’ refrain of “Give it five episodes, and you’ll be hooked.” Simon’s approach was novelistic, where TV before (even HBO shows like The Sopranos) had been almost totally focused on the entertainment value of single episodes. With The Wire, you had a show that needed time to percolate and gather its story threads together. That approach didn’t draw strong viewership on HBO, or much attention from Emmy voters, but it worked perfectly for platforms like Netflix and Amazon that prompt audiences to immediately hit “play” for the next episode.
Other serialized hits, from network shows like Lost to cable successes like The Shield, were suited to this model, too. The comedian James Adomian had a great stand-up routine mocking the new culture of binge-watching: “I love that I’m expected to watch an entire television series on DVD before someone will even talk to me as a human being at a party,” he said. “You know how many hours there are of Lost? There’s like 200 hours! You just asked me to watch 100 feature-length films.”