So Long and Thanks for the Fish, Man #016: To Binge or Not To Binge

As of late, I’ve been lucky to consume a metric ton of digital media. For those in-the-know, I tend to operate on two screens; one primarily for the drawing work I’m doing for the evening, and the second monitor to play something to keep my ears happy. I tend to toss on Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu, and let a show run while I draw. It’s good for when I need to take a mental break — no, seriously, drawing causes me to intensely focus so I need to take it easy every few minutes — and it’s good to catch up on all the shows in the zeitgeist.

Recently this has meant consuming the second season of Iron Fist, the third of Daredevil, and as of a few days ago… giving Runaways a try over on Hulu. And it got me thinking specifically about the shows I consume week-to-week versus multiple-episodes-a-night— The Flash, The Gifted, and Legion being the most well-known.

Binge-Culture is a thing now, isn’t it? Shows being made specifically to be absorbed en masse as quickly as possible. It allows for motifs (be they visual, auditory, or a combination) to form, fire, and be appreciated far easier than for shows where you return, at most, once a week. But just because binging exists doesn’t mean it’s a valuable tool for every show. Case in point: The Flash (or really any CW show). 

The exploits of Barry Allen and the Star Labs Prime Time Players is — even when it gets dark — a light-hearted romp amidst the DC(TV)U. Each week offers the opportunity for another mort-of-the-week to be foiled in less than 48 minutes of active screen time; save perhaps the lone big-bad of the season. Over 13-26 episodes… Barry’s nemeses unfurl a lengthy plot meant to be solved baby-steps at a time, ultimately providing the Scarlet Speedster one opportunity to get it right — whereupon the larger moral of the season arc can play out before our eyes. Then? We can traipse happily off to the off-season while the writer’s room selects the next set of ne’er-do-wells to be vanquished or be befriended for the next season. A large swatch of advertisers can be lured in by the network promoting the long-running viewership, and the cycle chugs along until the show has run its course… and then die a season or two later. Natch.

Counter that, then, to the mostly successful counter programming by Marvel across the streaming sites. Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, The Punisher, and Iron Fist all have enjoyed mostly celebrated seasons (let’s just go ahead and pretend Iron Fist didn’t exist) that slip in and out of our collective nerd brains fast enough that before we can really bitch about anything specifically… they take a bow before getting too long in the tooth. Each of these seasons really abandon any villain of the week, instead opting for what adds up to the “real meat and potatoes” story with maybe a single flight of fancy for pacing thrown in before the final action scene is unfurled. Because of this, the shows are meant to be enjoyed quickly; lest you try pacing a season of Daredevil out over 13 weeks, and forget that Wilson Fisk had Foggy’s family deli under his thumb too. Because you likely watched that arc play out over the course of a week or two tops? It’s still top of mind when the end credits roll.

Simply put? I think both formats serve their respective shows wonderfully. The Flash, or even Agents of SHIELD is built low and slow; you’re meant to let the status quo take hold week-to-week. It allows for a varied presentation, with a larger cast to ultimately tell long-game story arcs over months. Whereas streaming site content is built for the dink and dunk mentality. Drive down the field on what brought you to the party… score with a few choice set pieces (I’m looking at you, prison fight sequence…), and leave the game at halftime a winner.

Is there a half-life to all of this? I know some nerds in my feeds like to make sweeping statements over the quality or necessity for binge-worthy shows becoming the new norm. And because of the budgets, and typically strong production values, once could see why the arguments hold so much steam. But I beg of you: por que no los dos?

I wouldn’t want Doctor Who to be anything less than long-running medium budget marathon of storytelling… any more than I’d desire to see Luke Cage treat Harlem’s Paradise like the Arrow Cave or Cadmus; with Luke and his posse of positive role-models returning to us weekly so he can pummel each member of the Wrecking Crew one week at a time.

The art must fit the canvas. And for now… while networks can still turn a profit amidst the ala-carting of all our content elsewhere, let us pray for balance. This is the golden age of comic books in motion-based media. Until there is a true winner of the content-format-wars… We remain the victors.