How strange that it already feels too late to talk about the return of Arrested Development. After all, fans waited, and lobbied, and agitated for seven years before the arrival of a treasure trove of 15 fresh episodes of the cult comedy, and as I write this, it’s been only two weeks since Netflix unveiled them in its signature open-all-your-Christmas-presents-at-once style. But it turns out that even a binge viewer’s paradise has a dark side: If supersizing your TV portions is so great, why does Arrested Development feel so…over? And why didn’t people have more fun with something they wanted so badly and were so happy to get?
Going by the Twitter reactions and the recaps that started to appear just hours after the show was made available, many viewers seem to have taken in too much too fast. Some expressed disappointment at the pacing of the episodes; some objected to a complicated and repetitive story line in which jokes pay off only after circling back to the same event multiple times. I’ll leave that debate to more devoted buffs (I’m a latecomer), but I will point out that if you take in several episodes of anything in a row, the word repetitive will likely come to mind. No wonder many AD fans sounded a bit green around the gills in those first few days, like Cartman overeating until all he can do is gasp, “No…more…pie.”
Don’t blame the chef. Series creator Mitch Hurwitz warned viewers that if they wolfed down his 15-course meal, they might end up suffering from the new malady of our age, binger’s remorse. The show, at its best, ”gives fans something to pore over if that’s fun for them,” he told Vulture.com. And when you binge, the pleasure of contemplation becomes a casualty.
Confession: I have binge-watched and liked it, but only sometimes. I saw all of Battlestar Galactica in a couple of months-long sprints and was delirious with pleasure. I binged on The Shield halfway through its run, watched the rest of it in real time, and loved it both ways. And this summer, I hope to take an overdue deep dive into Justified. But I tried bingeing on Friday Night Lights, and it turned out not to be a show that benefited from being ingested by the ton; its delicacy suffered, and its soapiness got sudsier. Sometimes your deep engagement with a series turns out to be intertwined with your patient willingness to spend weeks and months in the company of its characters, getting to know them in what feels like real time and living their evolution as you live your own. It has been more moving and exciting to me to watch Mad Men over six years than it would have been to watch Don and Peggy age a decade in six weeks. Breaking Bad is not one long chopped-up movie; it’s a series that is hugely enhanced by the breathing room that’s built in between each immaculately crafted hour. And while I guess you could take in the past 22 episodes of Scandal in a long weekend (don’t!), you’d be depriving yourself of the fun of suspense, of waiting, of not getting what you want exactly when you want it.
When I tweeted this argument, I got considerable pushback from fans (and from Netflix) pointing out that the company is simply giving viewers a choice. And it’s true: Those who want to pretend Arrested Development still airs on Sunday nights can watch one episode a week and be happy all the way up to Labor Day. But the thing is, they’ll have to do it alone. Social media and recap culture have done wonders to turn good television into a collective conversational experience. The fact that more than 6 million Game of Thrones fans all attended the Red Wedding on the same night helped make it an event, and maybe the additional 7 million who watched it later in the week didn’t need it to be an event. That is a choice. But the choice offered by the all-at-once full-season release of a new show is one that favors the glutton over the savorer, the hare over the tortoise, and the solitary over the shared. It turns TV into something we do alone. And for all the freedom it offers, that feels like a step backward.