In defense of slow TV
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Season five of Mad Men debuts March 25. Chances are, if you’ve never seen the program or have fallen behind on it, you’re planning on having a massive catch-up watching back-to-back episodes in marathon sessions sometime in the next two months, the better to be ready when one of the best shows on TV reopens its doors after almost a year and a half off the air.
If you start watching Mad Men tonight and watch just one episode each night between now and then, you’ll be caught up in plenty of time, and you’ll have seen the show the way it was intended to be seen. You’ll also have saved yourself a number of headaches and allowed yourself plenty of time to savor the things the show does with slow-motion character and plot development, or with using historical trappings as exquisite background detail. But above all, you’ll be preserving one of the best things about televised storytelling: the episode.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sitting down and watching an ongoing series—especially a serialized one—in a couple of big gulps or two. If the hurdle keeping you from watching a perpetually underrated show like Community or Parks & Recreation is getting caught up as quickly as possible, then by all means, watch as fast as you can and add yourself to the Nielsen pile-on. But when you have the luxury of time, watching shows at a slower tempo—though it can be frustrating to those who are impatient—offers just as much satisfaction as gulping down series as quickly as possible.
I speak from experience. I’ve watched The Sopranos in many different ways. I watched most of the show’s seasons first-run, having to wait a week between episodes and sometimes nearly two years between seasons. I helped my wife catch up with the show before the first half of its final season by watching the first five seasons on DVD over the course of two weeks. And now that I’ve been covering the show for TV Club Classic since the summer of 2010, I watch the DVDs one episode at a time, usually waiting about a week between airings.
I prefer the slower method.
Allow me to state that this might just be personal preference. Certainly TV on DVD—or on Netflix or Hulu—is a new enough phenomenon that I couldn’t imagine my first experience with, say, Breaking Bad having come from watching the whole series in a few sittings. If you watch TV primarily for plot momentum and narrative acceleration then, sure, watching on DVD or Netflix is probably the way to go. Breaking Bad, which has always been somewhat of a slow-moving show when watched week to week, takes on the sheen of a high-stakes thriller when watched in this fashion, with unpredictable twists and turns and unexpected bursts of violence. But where watching week-to-week gives these moments the shock of violence intruding on real life and lends what’s a fundamentally pulpy show a gloss of “realism,” watching the series in a giant chunk could overemphasize these elements, turning character moments into the stuff that happens between the good parts, instead of the engine that keeps the story turning.
Let’s return to The Sopranos, as it might be the first show ever hurt by the phenomenon of audiences catching up on DVD. When the show debuted in 1999, it was a curiosity: a pay cable channel trying its hand at creating a drama that moved more like an American independent film, rather than a traditional TV show. Critics quickly embraced it, and the series became a stalwart hit for HBO. But it only really crossed over to the masses once it started coming out on DVD, which happened shortly before the show’s third season. (The first season of the show to air with all preceding seasons on DVD was the series’ fourth.) Suddenly, what had been sold as a quirky, often comedic slice of life was seen as a show that had grown turgid and meandering, a series that spent too much time on, say, the health of the show’s central marriage, rather than showing the shocking acts of mob violence that peppered a handful of episodes.
Though I’ve always appreciated the series and liked it far more than its harshest critics, there was a time when I agreed with the conventional wisdom as it pertains to the show: The first three seasons were much more plot-driven, before, it would appear, creator David Chase kept having to extend the show’s length because HBO needed its signature hit to run for more episodes, not fewer. (For years before he agreed to additional seasons, Chase had said he wanted the show to run four seasons, further fueling this theory.) In rewatching the series for TV Club Classic, however, and in forcing myself to watch it one week at a time—and take big breaks between seasons—the show has snapped back into place for me as one of TV’s all-time greats.
Watching one episode at a time, it’s much easier to see the attention lavished on the individual episodes of this series. By and large, The Sopranos structured its seasons as a series of short stories around similar themes that begin to cohere in the last handful of episodes, usually concluding with a few acts of shocking physical or psychological violence. Watching on DVD, where the temptation is to keep rolling along to see what happens next, has a tendency to wash away the distinctions between episodes, leaving many hours that muddle into seasons vaguely defined by who gets killed at the end. The Sopranos was so good at crafting standalones that a few still stand out when viewed in this method—season one’s “College,” season three’s “Pine Barrens,” season six’s “The Second Coming”—but there’s still a distressing tendency for the show to blend together.
This is even more apparent on serialized shows, and since the debut of The Sopranos, the trend in both TV drama and comedy has been toward more serialization, not less. And yet without good episodes, it’s rare to have a show that’s any good on a season-by-season level. The Wire and Breaking Bad may be among the most serialized TV shows ever made, but both readily break down to the episodic level, with every hour providing some small goal the heroes must accomplish, then showing whether they do or not. Watching on DVD or streaming services reduces these episodic goals to mush and turns the driving goal of the season—bring down the Barksdale crew; take on Gus Fring—into the goal of every single episode. That makes a peerless standalone episode like Breaking Bad’s “Fly” seem all the more bizarre to those watching it in pell-mell catch-up state. To be sure, “Fly” didn’t work for a substantial portion of people who watched the show live, but—speaking anecdotally—it seems to stick out even more when tossed into the midst of a larger story about Walter White realizing he’s in way over his head.
And yet that’s one of the points of that episode, and that’s one of the things that we miss when we sit down and simply plow through a series as quickly as possible. Watching a show at a slower pace may often be more frustrating, as it’s always tempting to know what happens next, but consuming it at that pace also allows for ample time to ruminate about what each episode is trying to say about the characters and the situations they’re in. Having time—whether it’s 24 hours or a full week—to contemplate each individual piece of TV makes the overall whole that much more satisfying. It also doesn’t allow for the nasty surprise that inevitably hits any viewer who’s caught up with a show on DVD and now wants to watch it live: All TV stories, whether drama or comedy, move much more slowly when spaced out over the course of 13-39 weeks.
Which brings us back to Mad Men. Like The Sopranos (the show Matthew Weiner worked on before Mad Men), the story of Don Draper and his colleagues is one that unfolds in a series of episodic short stories that come together at the end of a season. And while that can be satisfying to watch over the course of a day or two, it’s much more satisfying to have the space to mull over and contemplate each episode. More than any other drama series on TV right now, Mad Men is a series given over to texture, to wondering what it would be like to work in that office or live in that house, imagining what the characters are thinking about the rapidly changing world they live in, or simply wanting to reach out and feel that high-gloss world. That’s something that can be appreciated when you consume one episode after another, but it has a tendency to reduce the show to a series of plot machinations, which only hurts it. (Again anecdotally, I’ve talked to far more people disappointed with watching Mad Men at catch-up speed than any other acclaimed drama series of the modern era, perhaps because of that unusual “short story” structure.)
I’m not going to sit down and call for a “slow TV” movement that tries to stuff the genie back in the bottle and requires everyone to artificially adopt the viewing speed of pre-DVD TV. Nor am I going to say that watching slowly works best for all shows—Vampire Diaries, all aggressive forward momentum and constant surprise, practically begs to be watched over a long, bleary-eyed weekend. But watching some shows slowly and taking time to savor their episode-by-episode pleasures will often unlock a world you didn’t know existed within a show you’ve been curious about or one you already loved. Pull something up on Netflix that you’ve heard good things about or that you’ve seen a million times. Force yourself to watch it slowly. See what happens.