As part of my preparation for Netflix's day at the 2015 Television Critics Association summer press tour, I watched the first episode of the streaming service's new true-crime saga Narcos, which launches August 28. I pretty much hated it.
It was an endless barrage of exposition about the rise of Pablo Escobar, delivered mostly in voiceover, the very epitome of why "show, don't tell" is one of the first rules every writer learns in Hollywood. It reminded me, in many ways, of the second-season premiere of True Detective, which similarly overloaded on backstory.
Don't consider that a Narcos review, though. Because here's the thing: If the other nine episodes of Narcos are brilliant and build off the first episode's infodump in interesting ways, the problems of that first hour won't matter.
The inertia that sets in when you hit the end of an episode and Netflix autoplay kicks in is just too great much of the time. If you watch one episode of Narcos, it will take more work to avoid watching additional episodes than it will to just watch the whole season. Netflix counts on this with all of its shows.
So here's what I'm wondering: Has Netflix accidentally invented a new art form?
Binge watching versus weekly watching: It changes everything
This idea was first broached to me in a conversation with my friend the Salon writer and former media scholar Scott Eric Kaufman. Scott had watched the first season of my beloved Halt and Catch Fire by bingeing it on Netflix, where I had watched it week to week on AMC in 2014. And our experiences of watching the show two different ways were telling in how TV viewing is diverging.
Watching Halt week to week in its first season was an exercise in frustration, in wondering if anybody making the show was aware of how derivative what they were doing was compared with what came before. By the time you reached the first season's end, it was clear that being derivative was a conscious choice. The show had done so to undercut what seemed to be copycat behavior at the end, the better to highlight the story it was really telling.
The show's genius salesman, Joe — the Don Draper, if you will — turned out to be all empty packaging in a way Draper never did. The real story was with the people around him, and especially the women making their way in the 1980s computer industry. In season two, the show's feet under it, it's easier to appreciate these qualities, and it's even easier to appreciate Joe as a character.
But I'm also a little jealous of those like Scott who watched on a binge, because the way the show was building up the big character reversals was much more obvious in that form.
You can even see this divide in the comments sections discussing the show around the internet — particularly at the A.V. Club. Those who watched the first season week to week often have much less patience for Joe and his shenanigans. Those who binged are willing to see where his schemes are headed because they seem to have built more trust for the show.
Scott's suggestion to me is that binge-watching fundamentally changes the basic unit of cinematic storytelling from the episode (30 to 60 minutes) or film (90 to 180 minutes) to the season, which can run well into the hundreds of minutes. And storytellers aren't just adjusting to this; they're increasingly catering to it, telling longer and longer stories.
Now think back to Halt and Catch Fire: Whose experience with the first-season storytelling was "right"? Mine or Scott's? Both? Neither?
Netflix thinks more in terms of seasons than of episodes
Netflix, for various business reasons (mostly involving foreign sales and the fact that it doesn't own any of its hit shows), continues to be bound by the episodic restrictions that TV has lived under since its earliest days. Nearly every single one of its episodes is roughly a half-hour or roughly an hour long (though it has experimented with longer episode lengths on Orange Is the New Black and Sense8).
But Netflix fundamentally doesn't think about TV in terms of those episodes. It thinks about them in terms of seasons, and it encourages its creators to do so as well. I caught up with Ted Sarandos, the company's chief content officer, to ask him about this very thing, and he said the company increasingly thinks of its series not in terms of episodes but in terms of shows. He pointed to the slow-boiled Southern gothic family drama Bloodline — which drew criticism for being so slow when it launched — as being particularly exemplary of this approach.
"The first season of Bloodline is the pilot. It's not like the first episode of Bloodline is the pilot," he told me.
Sarandos allowed that this is more the case with heavily serialized dramas than with comedies. The first season of Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is more episodic than Bloodline or House of Cards, for instance, but Sarandos maintained that the only way to get the full Bloodline experience is to watch the whole thing and follow its various characters' arcs through the entire season.
In this view of things, then, episodes are useful to Netflix as chapter stops — as ways for audiences to reach natural endpoints when they have to eat or sleep, as all humans must — but they're increasingly only that. They're not standalone units. They're pieces of a whole.
But the 10-hour story is still a new craft — and an imperfect one
This is, of course, not revolutionary as a way to think about Netflix's programming. But what's different now is the way it's increasingly filtering out to how viewers think about all programming.
Think, for instance, of all of the True Detective fans arguing critics shouldn't judge the show based on only its first three episodes (or almost half its season) and shouldn't write anything until the full season was available. That's a massive shift from how most casual viewers regarded television even a year ago.
The answer, to me, is that I review things as they're first presented to me. If it's on an episodic basis, that's how I consider them. But if it's on a seasonal basis, I shift my thinking in that way (and, as such, when I finally review Narcos, it will be for that full 10-episode season). Yet the rise of binge-watching has created as many different methods of intake as there are people watching these shows. You already know the days of watching week to week are over. But what you might not have thought much about is how this fundamentally changes your relationship to the art itself.
The problem, however, is that this requires an essential paradigm shift in how those who make television think about how they make television. By and large, the way the television industry is structured is based around the episode. Fees are usually paid to actors or writers or directors on a per-episode basis, and that seems unlikely to change, due to how studios deal with the industry's trade unions.
So it's natural to think about where each episode is going to fit in the overall story of the season — or even how each episode can stand on its own. And perhaps because of this, Netflix's shows have a tendency to have lumpy stories that lurch around and have bland midsections, before closing with a bang. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Netflix's best shows — BoJack Horseman and Orange — break down brilliantly as a series of episodes, instead of as big seasons.) I love episodic TV, and I think the demotion of episodes to mere chapters could end up being a net negative for the format. There's nothing better than a great episode, and I'll miss that if it goes away.
But all of this also suggests that Netflix is learning about all of this as surely as everybody else is. Telling a 10- or 12-hour story that will hopefully lead to a 10- or 12-hour sequel story a year later isn't really a natural format for storytellers, and like all storytelling shifts, it will require a fair amount of trial and error. But it's time, I think, for people like me who write about television to get to where the audience already is and start treating these shows as they're intended to be seen — as full seasons, not individual pieces.