Friday, December 18, 2015

Streaming TV series are a new genre of art

...streaming shows — by which here I mean the original series that Netflix, Amazon and their ilk release all at once, in full seasons — are more than simply TV series as we’ve known them. They’re becoming a distinct genre all their own, whose conventions and aesthetics we’re just starting to figure out.

In TV, narrative has always been an outgrowth of the delivery mechanism. Why are there cliffhangers? So you’ll tune in next week. Why are shows a half-hour or an hour long? Because real-time viewing required predictable schedules. Why do episodes have a multiple-act structure? To leave room for the commercials.

HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. ...

When you watch a series weekly, the time you spend not watching — mulling, anticipating, just getting older — is a part of the show. “Breaking Bad,” for instance, is the story of a man’s descent, or rise, from ordinary life to murderous criminality. In narrative time, the story takes about two years. Watched live on AMC, it aired for more than five years. Binged — as many late-joining fans saw it — it took maybe a week or three.

The live viewer saw Walter White’s change distended, in slow-motion; little by little, he broke badder and badder, in a way that emphasized the gradual slope of moral compromise. The binger saw him change in time-lapse, in a way that suggested that the tendency to arrogance and evil was in him all along. Neither perception is wrong. In fact, both themes are thoroughly built into the show. But how you watch, in some way, affects the story you see. ...

This approach has advantages. With a few hours to seal the deal, you don’t need to load up your first episode with gimmicks, and you can avoid the tedious network practice of “repeating the pilot”: telling repetitive stories in the early episodes to accommodate latecomers. You can pack a series with story and incident and trust viewers not to forget details...
--James Poniewozik, NYT, on the medium and the message