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Take the TV Deep Dive

Streaming services like Netflix are turning us into binge viewers

posted by Leah Rozen, August 29, 2012 More by this author

Downton Abbey Season 3 | Masterpiece | PBS

Leah Rozen, a former film critic for People magazine, is a freelance writer for The New York Times, More and Parade.


Downton Abbey Season 3 | Masterpiece | PBS
The next season of "Downton Abbey" will debut on PBS Masterpiece on January 6, 2013.
Courtesy of WGBH
Several years ago, I was supposed to go to the theater with a couple with whom I am friendly. At curtain time, only the husband turned up.
 
He explained why his wife hadn’t been able to make it: “Lesley started watching the first season of The Wire on DVD at 10 last night. She finished at 11 this morning.”
 
That was my first encounter with “binge viewing” — the phenomenon of TV fans consuming a season and, yes, entire runs of shows in giant gulps over a short period. This maximum immersive viewing experience, also dubbed “the lost weekend,” is gaining in popularity as technology makes it ever easier to indulge.
 
Forget DVDs. All you need now to binge-view is the time — that’s the hard part — and a good broadband connection. With a few clicks on the keyboard of your computer, laptop, tablet device or smart phone, you can stream via Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon and various other services complete runs of that show you’d always meant to watch. Ditto for your DVR, if you had the foresight to program it to record an entire season of, say, Mad Men or Fringe.
 
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Watch one episode and you’re likely to watch them all. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, 73 percent of all Netflix members who started streaming the first episode of Season One of Breaking Bad ended up viewing the entire season. The completion rates climbed even higher for each subsequent season. (Netflix reports TV shows account for 60 percent of the viewing on its streaming service; movies make up the rest).
 
I’m all in favor of binge viewing. I joke that I quit my job two years ago so that I could finally have the time to watch The Wire. I’m only half kidding.
 
Binge viewing is the optimum way to watch TV shows. It lets you to catch up with old favorites and discover new series. It allows you to see a show in its totality, to deeply submerge yourself in its world and characters. Watching this way, you pick up on references and jokes that would have passed you by and make connections you might have missed if you were seeing a show only once a week, the old-fashioned way. 
 
The television and cable industry have reservations about big-gulp consumption — binge viewers don’t watch commercials and many are cord-cutters, thereby reducing traditional sources of revenue to the industry. But there is no going back. We have seen the future and it’s all Dexter, all the time.
 
With the long Labor Day weekend coming up, here are five TV series deserving of marathon viewing:
 
  • The Wire. 60 episodes. Television doesn’t get better than this brilliant series, which aired on HBO for five seasons, from 2002-2008. With intelligence, humor and humanity, each season tells a complicated, compelling story that reveals the interconnectedness of the police, local government and Baltimore’s poor and working-class citizens. Fair warning: It takes a full episode or two to get into the show, but once you do, hold on for an unforgettable ride. 
    
  • Friday Night Lights. 70 episodes. Get over the notion that this wonderful series is only about high school kids playing football in Texas. Yes, it’s about that, but it’s also about so much more, including marriage, parenting, education, community involvement and job satisfaction. The show deserves all the praise that critics lavished on it during its five-season (2006-2011) run on NBC and later both Direct TV and NBC.
 
  • Rescue Me. 93 episodes. Comedian Denis Leary, long active in charities benefiting firefighters, created this darkly comic series in response to his heartbreak over 9/11. Its hero (or, more accurately, antihero) is Tommy Gavin, a self-destructive New York City fireman who drinks too much and has trouble keeping his fly zipped. Over the show’s seven seasons (2004-2011) on FX, the raunchy series was wildly uneven but always highly watchable.
 
  • The Comeback. 13 episodes. After her long run on Friends, actress Lisa Kudrow co-created (with Sex & the City’s Michael Patrick King) and starred in this remarkably astute show biz comedy. It’s a mockumentary, a faux reality show about a has-been sitcom star in Los Angeles desperately attempting a comeback. The show lasted just one season on HBO in 2005, but has become a touchstone for comedy writers and with fans ever since for how brilliantly it skewers Hollywood and its denizens. (Note: This is the only program on this list that, given its half-hour episodes, you can easily knock off in one weekend.)
 
  • Downton Abbey. 16 episodes. If you haven’t been watching the popular, Emmy-winning drama on PBS, here’s your chance to catch up on the first two seasons before the third begins in airing in January. The British series is set in Downton Abbey, a grand manor house, in the early 20th century and follows the fortunes of the aristocratic family who lives there and their servants. Highlighting every episode are the many acerbic zingers launched by Dame Maggie Smith, a comic delight as the bossy Dowager Countess.
 
Dip into the first episode of any of these shows and then try, just try, not to watch the next episode and the one after that. Just remember to lay in a supply of healthful snacks and schedule bathroom breaks.
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