Opinion

Binge-watching may be suited for complex narratives

Watching whole seasons of sophisticated television shows is enriched through instant streaming

Amazon Prime just made a huge deal with HBO. Beginning in May, Amazon Prime subscribers will have access to HBO classics like “The Wire,” “The Sopranos” and “Oz.” Television fans are happy that Tony Soprano and Omar Little will soon grace monitor screens with their presence, but viewers may not be aware of the transition that this deal symbolizes.

Viewers are no longer watching an episode of “The Walking Dead” every Sunday or an episode of “Scandal” every Thursday. They want the entire season, if not the entire series, available all at once. The era of weekly television watching is slowly dying. Some luddites think the transition reflects our growing addiction to screens and television. In some cases, it probably does. But it also reflects a change in the medium itself. For more than a decade, television has been becoming more sophisticated and complex. The new “binge-watching era” is more than our nation’s youth melting their minds in front of a TV; we are adapting to the developing nature of television.

That said, there are plenty of shows whose binge-worthiness stems mostly from their mindlessness. Plowing through episodes of “One Tree Hill,” “Scandal” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” is easy, fun and thoroughly enjoyable, but the binge-watchable nature of these “less sophisticated” shows gives a bad name to binge-watching in general.

“The Wire,” one of the greatest shows of all time, will soon be available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Even if Amazon Prime subscribers don’t watch all of the hour-or-more-long episodes of “The Wire” in a couple of weeks, they will watch it much faster than those who viewed it during its original HBO airing, which spanned six years.

Is it bad that viewers are going to binge-watch “The Wire” and won’t have time to slowly digest each great episode? No, not really. What makes “The Wire” great is that each episode cannot stand on its own; it is part of a longer and more complex series. When you read a great book, you don’t want to read one chapter every Sunday; you want to read it at whatever pace you deem fit.

Thankfully, “The Wire” is not the only great show that takes a more novelistic, less stand-alone episode approach. Both “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” are noted for character development and story arcs that span multiple seasons and not just an episode or two. When you binge-watch shows like “House” or the “Twilight” shows, it can feel like you are watching a bunch of unconnected short movies; it isn’t the right way to watch those kinds of shows. But when you binge on “Breaking Bad,” you can get lost in the bigger story of the show, not just one episode.

Many great novels were written in weekly or monthly installments in magazines and various publications, often with iconic authors being paid literally by the word. But the literary community eventually realized that great novels shouldn’t generally be read in this format. This new era of binge-watching might just be the television-watching community’s parallel progression.

This is not to say that all quality television should be binge-watched. It shouldn’t. “The Sopranos,” despite its reputation as an all-time great, doesn’t have the nearly the same “binge-ability” as “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones,” though some describe “Game of Thrones” as “The Sopranos of Middle Earth.” “The Sopranos” has fascinating character and plot development that span the entire series, but most episodes contain their own plots. Those plots are sophisticated and compelling on their own and are underscored by deeper and longer plot development, but their individual nature is not conducive to “Breaking Bad”-level bingeing.

Different shows are meant to be watched in different ways, and there is no way to know exactly which pace will maximize your viewing experience when watching a show. Mostly, you have to feel it out. But be wary of taking way too long or making big attempts to slowly “savor” a show. Sometimes the best way to savor a show, whether it’s “The Wire” or “The O.C.,” is to binge until your eyes start to bleed.

Views expressed in the opinion pages represent the opinions of the columnists.