Reality TV

One Episode at a Time, Please: Is a Binge Backlash Brewing?

Barry Jenkins’s The Underground Railroad is the kind of limited series that gives streaming television a good name: an emotionally challenging, visually sumptuous epic that follows a young woman born into bondage on her journey through antebellum America. Amazon Prime released the series in a binge-ready, roughly 10-hour block—something many critics took issue with before it had even been released. Caroline Framke of Variety called Amazon’s binge strategy “a mistake,” while Polygon’s Robert Daniels deemed the show “too narratively, visually, and sonically dense….to appreciate in one consumption.” New York Times critic James Poniewozik declared, “Amazon is releasing all 10 episodes at once, so you could binge them. Don’t.”

Netflix made the binge a hallmark of streaming television in the 2010s, differentiating itself from the slow-motion world of weekly television series by indulging its audience with a seemingly bottomless pit of content. Why not gorge an eight-episode series in one night, the thinking goes, since there will be 10 others waiting in your queue to keep your eyeballs sated? The binge release soon became a kind of default mode for other streamers as well. That is quickly changing, though, as new players enter the arena, and viewers rediscover the lost art of anticipation. 

HBO Max, Hulu, Paramount+, and Apple TV+ have all been experimenting with versions of a linear release format, dropping episodes weekly or in parcels. But it is Disney+ that has most successfully revived the concept of appointment viewing with series like WandaVision and The Mandalorian.

“What I’ll miss most about WandaVision is the little Friday ritual,” V.F. critic Richard Lawson wrote when the show ended. “How nice it was to have that pseudo-communal experience, of watching something at roughly the same time as everyone else.” WandaVision director Matt Shakman similarly extolled the pleasures of a deferred narrative: “Binging has its place, for sure, but there’s something about the mystery—especially for a show like WandaVision—where people can think about what they’ve watched and come up with their own theories and it builds anticipation,” he told Entertainment Tonight. “It’s exciting to put something out there and allow people to kind of chew on it and come up with their own theories.”

Shakman isn’t the only creator nostalgic for the days of watercooler television, when viewers would spend days discussing an episode rather than gulping down a whole series. 

“You work on something for a year and then it’s over in a weekend for people,” Josh Schwartz, the cocreator of Gossip Girl, The O.C., and Runaways, recently told me. “And people don’t quite know where one episode ends and another one begins. There does feel like something is lost in that model…. People are just consuming it as this kind of block of something.” His cocreator, Stephanie Savage, laughed as she evokes the image of “lost weekends where you’re lying in bed, watching something for many hours.” But those quickly gobbled episodes often leave behind barely an imprint. She said that she finds herself having conversations where she insists she hasn’t seen something, then realizes, “Oh! I did see that. I watched the whole thing, and I just completely forgot about it.”

Schwartz and Savage are currently working on a reboot of Gossip Girl for HBO Max—and as Schwartz has pointed out to me, “I’m thrilled that people still want to talk about The O.C. and Gossip Girl. But I don’t know how many shows today we’ll be able to have conversations about 15 years from now, because of the way that people consume and how quickly they move through the consumption digestive system.”

Patrick Somerville, who created the series Maniac for Netflix and is currently working on an adaptation of the novel Station Eleven for HBO Max, recalled the heady experience of working on HBO’s The Leftovers as it gained cultural steam. “There’s something about the sustained eight weeks or 10 weeks of a season unfurling, and each episode feeling like a step and building a momentum. It’s really exciting and makes you able to appreciate each episode as a valuable piece of work,” he said. On the other hand, Somerville described the binge drop as a kind of thrilling gamble. “It’s just sort of one shot, all of it, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s scary on that end too, since there’s the highest chance of your show being a blip that doesn’t take.”

Streamers are increasingly taking what Hulu content chief Craig Erwich called a “bespoke approach to each show.” Hulu has made a habit of parceling out blockbuster dramas like The Handmaid’s Tale and Little Fires Everywhere, while allowing viewers to binge on comedies like PEN15 and Ramy. Apple TV+ similarly let its audience slowly savor The Morning Show, but dropped the first season of Dickinson—aimed at a younger demographic—en masse. Amazon, too, has occasionally taken a hybrid approach. 

But while critics bemoaned The Underground Railroad’s binge release, fans raged when Amazon Prime chose not to release season two of hit superhero series The Boys all at once last September. So noxious was the backlash that showrunner Eric Kripke felt he had to explain to fans that it was not the streamer’s fault. “It was a creative choice,” he told The Wrap. “So [viewers] may like it or not like it, but they have to at least respect that the people who are making the show wanted it to be released this way because we wanted to have time to sort of slow down a little bit and have conversations about everything.”

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