Let me preface this diatribe by saying that I love binge-watching TV. Ever since I discovered cable TV marathons as a youngun, I’ve always had an easy time getting drawn into the idea of viewing as much of a show in one sitting as I could handle. One of my great joys in being a TV critic is that networks will send screeners in binge-able doses: the first four or six episodes, or even the entire season. Many times in my reviews I mention that certain shows are best served binged, because they’re laid out novelistically, with episodic chapters that all contribute to the overall narrative rather than standing (necessarily) on their own. Bingeing can also help a viewer overlook certain sins like plot holes, because the details are forgotten in service of the overall feeling or story being presented.
But TV was designed to be episodic, and as some critics like Alan Sepinwall have pointed out that art is being lost in an era of bingeing. Netflix shows are a great example — I adored Jessica Jones, but I couldn’t tell you in what episode any one thing happened. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a new way of viewing television: as a whole, rather than week by week (even though the cable model, and wrong-headed moves like the rollout of Hulu’s original series, is still by-and-large a weekly affair).
FX’s anthology series, The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, is a rare example though of a modern show that defies a binge-watching model. I did binge it, initially, in order to write a review, but I didn’t enjoy doing so. It was too dense and too overwhelming to be watching back-to-back for hours. Since I’ve stepped back, I’ve come to greatly respect certain breakout episodes, like “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” which was an exceptional, character-driven episode focusing on Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark. There was also a great episode told completely from the jurors perspective, “A Jury in Jail,” as well as several others that similarly focused on very specifics aspects of the trial itself, all of which worked as a sometimes very pointed and fantastic acting showcase for Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, and Sterling K. Brown.
Part of why this format worked so well, perhaps, is because we already knew the outcome. And yet, it didn’t make the finale, “The Verdict,” any less tense. Waiting for the verdict was excruciating because of how the show also made the final episode specifically about that. It wasn’t about wrapping up stories and finding fitting conclusions, it was about what happens when things aren’t wrapped up and when you can’t find conclusions. There was no gimmick, just a difficult truth. And it was presented far, far better than say The Walking Dead’s messy season finale, which irritated fans by feeling cheap and gimmicky when perhaps what it was trying to achieve was something more hauntingly vague (though it did so very poorly).
There are a few other current or recent shows that deserve to not be binge-watched, like AMC’s Better Call Saul, the recent miniseries War & Peace, SundanceTV’s lulling Hap and Leonard, FX’s The Americans, and even Netflix’s Happy Valley. The latter is one whose short 6-episode season I put away in almost a single day, and regretted it immediately. It’s another dense, dark, twisted show that was so good I felt I just had to keep watching, but should have refrained. It was clearly meant to be thought over, savored, and considered. There’s a saturation point with these series where you stop taking in the wonderful, small details and start becoming interested in just the bigger twists. The specific joy of a carefully crafted TV show is the anticipation of re-entering its world in a thoughtful way, and bingeing can strip that away.
Still, some series are better binged, because of how they’re crafted (or how they aren’t — I can easily blow through several episodes of any given ABC drama without a second thought, because they are designed to be breezy, candy-like fun. As a sidebar, that’s usually how Ryan Murphy‘s series are, which is another surprising thing about this anthology). But The People v O.J. was an excellent example of a show that — fittingly — was a throwback in that regard. It believed in the power of the episode, and was all the better for it. The story was one we knew, at least regarding the general facts and the outcome, but isn’t that so often true with TV? We can know where the story is going, and still very much enjoy the slow ride to getting there.