The time to judge the quality of the next season/next installment/whatever the hell they want us to call it batch of “Arrested Development” is still to come. Starting early Sunday morning, you’ll see breathless binge watching, an overabundance of livetweeting, and people racing to pass judgment over the collected batch of episodes as a whole. An insane amount of overlapping analysis will occur over a fairly brief period of time. What I want to ask is this: Then what?
Let’s put aside the silly argument that critic/journalists don’t like the Netflix methodology of dumping an entire season’s worth of episodes at once because it threatens their livelihood. That argument was leveled more than once at me during my weekly reviews of “House Of Cards,” which dropped once a week in the thirteen weeks after all installments were available for consumption. My grades couldn’t possibly have been about the actual quality of the episode, they argued, but rather an innate, crippling fear of what the “future” of television distribution meant for those that traffic in episodic reviews.
Those arguments persisted for a few weeks, but they eventually dropped off. They didn’t drop off because people suddenly realized I was in fact looking at the show in terms of merit rather than distribution. It stopped because the conversation around “House Of Cards” itself essentially stopped two weeks after it released. All of the conversation around the show concerned the build-up to its release, the “bold” new model Netflix was implementing, and how it would potentially mark the beginning of new world order of the way television was consumed. What was lost in all of this, or what perhaps couldn’t be articulated until revealed by real-world application, was that it also represented a potentially fatal blow to the way that television is actually discussed. Not amongst critics, although that will change as well. Rather, I’m thinking about the way it will change amongst viewers.
There are huge problems with the “wait a week for a new episode, and often wait weeks during a season to see a new one, and then wait months between seasons to get the next batch” model of things. In an age in which you can download movies to your smartphone in a few minutes, waiting 168 hours for another episode of TV seems downright ludicrous. However, there’s something worthwhile about networks controlling the schedule of its content, and it’s something that may be lost in the Netflix model: the shared experience of those viewing the controlled deployment. Put aside the merits of different approaches to narrative storytelling for a moment and think about this: It’s often much easier to encourage and facilitate discussion of a TV show when everyone is the same page at roughly the same time.
I say “roughly” because it’s of course impossible to get everyone in perfect sync. (This is how you get a world in which people cry “spoiler!” over discussion of an episode of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” that aired a decade ago, nevermind an episode of “Arrow” that aired two weeks ago.) But those most likely to be heavily engaged with discussions about an episode of TV are also more likely to watch it as close to actual air date as possible. Even if you don’t catch the latest episode of “Game Of Thrones” on Sunday, by Tuesday or so it’s likely that you have barring travel or finding yourself fighting a bear in a pit for the amusement of others. Jumping into a massive comment thread after 48 hours may still be a daunting challenge, but it still means they are on the same level as everyone else there.
Put another way: It’s impossible to be ahead, although it’s more than possible to be behind. You can’t have watched more than anyone else, unless you had access to screeners. (But we’re not talking about critics/journalists here, even if they love to talk about said screeners.) It sucks to have to wait to find out what Stannis is up to in Dragonstone, but it sucks for everyone equally. Everyone has to wait for the same amount of time for the same amount of content, which means all analysis and speculation happens on a level playing field. That type of discourse is only possible when everyone has access to the same amount of information. How you interpret that information is, naturally, the fun of talking about them.
Once someone has more information, however, the discourse changes, and changes for the worse. The Netflix model puts the power of consumption in the viewers’ hands, which is great for anyone who wants to watch television in a vacuum. But I honestly don’t know anyone who wants to do that! And so you get people afraid to read other comments for fear of being spoiled, people who use their extra information to snootily smack down others whose theories are provably false based on later episodes, or simply have forgotten about certain episodes because binge viewing has turned individual episodes into a massive monolith that’s impossible to separate in the mind’s eye.
Now, will this happen with “Arrested Development”? That’s the big question. Just because if happened with “House Of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove” doesn’t mean the third time will be the same. Many more people are interested in “Arrested”, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s long-term success is guaranteed. In fact, its popularity might be its cultural half-life might be even shorter overall. Are there any “casual” fans of the show at this point? Are there people who will casually watch an episode every few days when they get around to it? The intensity in and out of the industry means this show will essentially blind everything else around it for a few days. Of that, we can be certain. Everyone will be talking about it. But they may not necessarily be discussing it. But where will people be able to talk about it with each other rather than past each other?
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not if the Netflix model affects how critics do their job. But it does matter how it affects the ways that communities around shows are constructed and cultivated. If social media/social energy is a deciding factor in which shows live or die above and beyond the increasingly irrelevant Nielsen ratings, then harnessing that energy rather than dissipating it seems like a smart business move. Releasing everything all at once results in a very loud, very short burst of interest. But it also potentially scatters that interest the nanosecond after creating it. The week between episodes isn’t just a time for people to sit on their hands and passively wait for a new episode. It’s time to analyze, criticize, and proselytize. Telling everyone about a great show you just finished is fine. Telling everyone about a great show they could share with you in real time is even better. People love watching TV, but they love talking about it even more. The Netflix model cuts off that conversation, and thus cuts off a central part of what makes the medium so great. It’s not just about what’s onscreen. It’s about those on the other side of it.