The rise of TV binge-watching, and the death of the spoiler alert

Netflix has put all of its new House of Cards series online in one go. It's like a boxset without a boxset - but will it ruin the social aspect of telly viewing?

In the last week or so, my Twitter timeline (a self-selected crowd of pop culture enthusiasts such as myself) went a little bit nuts. The reason? An American remake of House of Cards, the wildly influential 1990 TV series starring Ian Richardson as fictional Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (“You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”) had finally been released.

These days, the main man’s been relocated to Washington DC where he is called Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), and is a Democratic congressman playing the long and not entirely diplomatic game after a betrayal. I’ve only seen the trailer, but everyone seems more or less blown away by it so far – one enthusiastic viewer compared it to State of Play, which is for my money, one of the best television series of all time, so there’s pressure. But critical success or not, the really interesting thing about House of Cards (2013) is the mode of its release. All thirteen episodes of Season 1 have been released at the same time, so you, the viewer, gets to dictate the pace of your consumption. We have finally achieved something I did not think I would see in my lifetime: The Boxset Dream Without The Boxset.  

The series was commissioned by Netflix – not usually found in the business of acquiring original programming (that’s the preserve of HBO etc), but streaming it. The true joy of House of Cards lies not in the pedigree of the crew and cast – Spacey’s co-star is Princess Buttercup herself, Robin Wright – which is of course, desirable and welcome. No, it is its instant availability, crucially at the same time as it is being aired in America that makes this drama super-glossy and revolutionary. Fans of popular culture are almost always acolytes of the School of Instant Gratification, and those of us based in these British Isles having become used to occupying the position  of the ugly stepchild: almost always several months (sometimes years) behind on the best (and in the interests of fairness, worst – hello, FlashForward) of American television-programming, if we receive it at all. Cast off your entertaino-shackles, brethren – no more! It’s a genuinely exciting prospect.

One of the good things about being constantly late to the party was the option of binge-watching.  As director and executive producer David Fincher has it: “The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there's reason to believe they will do it."He’s right. We’ve all done it – it’s how I watched superior American television like Deadwood, The Wire, Party Down and Friday Night Lights among others – and we know it to be good. In fact, there is no joy quite like that which is to be found at 1.30am, as you bargain with yourself about how many more episodes you can watch and still be productive in the morning.

With new innovations like Netflix’s latest move will come new questions about how to frame spoiler alerts. A few people have already issued gentle warnings: “I’m giving you two weeks,” tweeted one. “Then it’s spoiler city on House of Cards.” Others have promised dedicated hashtags or just suggested followers mute them for a good long while.

Those of us who live a solid chink of our lives on the internet know the Spoiler Avoidance dance well. Only last week, my Tumblr dashboard turned against me when it began throwing up gifs of a much longed-for event on an American sitcom. That kiss (I will give no more information for fear of incurring viewer-wrath of my own) came up at least ten times in gif and YouTube clip form in less than an hour. In the parlance of the medium, “Tumblr no curr” if your geographical location means you have to wait months for the networks in your country to pick up the second season of a wildly successful show before you can see a seminal lip lock. Tumblr will post those gifs until the cows come home – and sure, you can filter out specific tags to avoid the worst of the spoiling, but there are always breaches. Sometimes, I’ve been using a particularly entertaining gif as a catch-all response on my dashboard only to find the context of its origins watch a show months later.

Death, taxes and spoilers – the new trio of life’s terrible guarantees.

So I’ll be signing up to Netflix, simply because I want to watch this new series. And I will probably watch all thirteen episodes in two long binges over one weekend. It’s not the same as getting Parks and Rec, Scandal and Community at the same time as fans in the States, but for now, it’ll do.

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Will the latest wave of revivals, with X-Files leading the way, serve or undermine loyal fans?

How fandoms are affected when their favourite characters return to their screens.

The X-Files has returned to television. The beloved sci-fi drama, which was on screen for nine years (plus two feature films, including nobody’s favourite, 2008’s I Want to Believe), wrapped up in 2002. More than a decade later, the show is back on FOX for a six-episode run, a length that’s standard in Britain but new to American broadcast audiences used to 22-episode seasons.

And last night, before the US watched the fourth episode, everyone in the UK who hadn’t already found another way to watch it saw the series premiere on Channel 5.

Watching America watch the premiere was a curious thing. I’ve never been an X-Files fan (for no particular reason, I just never got down to it), but spending your time deep in fan culture means having plenty of friends who cut their teeth on X-Files fandom in the mid- to late-Nineties.

Modern media fandom was born in online X-Files communities, laying templates for a lot of our current language and practices. The most prominent example might be the term “ship”, short for relationship, because the fandom was (and still is?) divided between shippers – proponents of MSR, or “Mulder/Scully relationship”, a desire to see the two leads move past platonic affection onscreen – and “no-romos”, who, as you might guess, wanted the opposite. Two decades later, “ship” has spread far beyond the fandom where it originated, or even beyond fandom at large.

The X-Files wasn’t just a fan favourite, though: far from some cult sleeper hit, it was the kind of mainstream success that the network tapped to air after the Super Bowl one year (that particular episode, in 1997, earned 29m viewers). So when the new series premiered, I watched with interest as America seemed to fall over itself in excitement. The start-time was pushed back due to a late NFL championship game, and the entire internet seemed to be clamouring to get the football off the screen. And when the show finally came on, I watched the collective glee.

It was fascinating to see a Nineties mainstay get the instant-collective-reaction treatment of the social media era, but I was abstractly worried, too: people who’d seen preview screenings were reporting that the first episode was pretty terrible, and I was ready for some serious backlash.

I messaged a friend, one of those whose first fandom experience was The X-Files, and she told me, with considerable confidence, that it didn’t matter. “Nobody cares,” she said.It’s not about that – it’s about having them on TV again.”

Sure enough, as the episode concluded, I gauged a similar sentiment among fans: “That wasn’t very good . . . I’VE MISSED THIS SHOW SO MUCH.”

I got in touch with a few long-time X-Files fans to ask if they felt this ambivalence. Aloysia Virgata told me that, despite initial trepidation (she’s been wary since the 2008 film), she was hopeful. “As the filming progressed, as David and Gillian proved to have developed a lovely friendship that was a joy to watch, as the promotional team got their feet under them, I found myself back in the Nineties, scheduling appointment TV.”

And Dasha K said: “Mulder and Scully are wonderful, complex characters and I'd watch them doing just about anything as long as we got snappy dialogue and longing looks between them. The X-Files revival is more than a nostalgic experience for me. It’s setting off with some old friends for new adventures.”

Fans tend to stick by their favourite characters. It’s sort of one of our defining features. Some people watch a film again and again to memorise every fact; others might build on fictional worlds in stories of their own – there are a lot of reasons to write fanfiction, but a common one is that you aren’t quite ready to give up the characters you love.

We hold on to them after shows are cancelled too soon, or after individuals or relationships are massacred in the writers’ room. But one question leaves us divided: if you could have these characters back, if this show could come back on the air, would you even want it to?

If the past decade has been the era of the reboot, we’re embarking on the era of the revival. The X-Files isn’t the first big show to be resurrected – Family Guy springs to mind, or the Netflix series of Arrested Development, or the 2014 Veronica Mars film, notable not just because it brought a show back from oblivion, but because it was literally done by fans, via a Kickstarter campaign.

It’s easy enough to quibble over the differences between reboots, revivals, sequels, and franchise continuations – where exactly does Doctor Who fall, for example – but I’m specifically interested in the swathe of shows that we’ll see in the next year or two, most with the original casts, most following on from where we left our characters before. Friends, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, Full House, and a new Star Trek (aside from the one in cinemas); I can already hear those critics moaning about how we’re stuck a morass of cheap and easy nostalgia.

Let’s be real here – most of the time, the sequel is worse than the original. And there are fundamental questions at work about narrative: whether shows with structural arcs and some semblance of closure should be resurrected from the dead (never mind that many shows end for other reasons, creative differences or squabbles over salary or flagging viewing figures).

I personally occupy a place that might seem paradoxical to people who don’t write or read fanfiction: I love my characters so much that I never, ever want them back in any “official” capacity beyond the initial text – I’m too busy doing unofficial (and, to me, much more interesting) things with them.

But like it or not, our characters are coming back. This always seems to stress people out who don’t get attached to things: revivals are prime targets for accusations of “fan service”. The term originated in anime and manga, where it often meant inserting gratuitous sexy bits into the story to, well, service the fan.

But in recent years it’s morphed into the suggestion that elements of a show or film are meant for the hardcore fan alone: complicated plots, winking in-jokes, meta- and intertextuality are all recipients of the accusation. Revivals are built on intertextuality; it’s rare that a cast and writing team will reunite and not work to build from where they left off.

The age of revivals owes a lot to rapidly changing television formats, viewing habits, and funding models – David Duchovny explicitly said the that they agreed to make this X-Files series because they were only locked into six episodes, after all. But it also owes a lot to the ever-increasing exposure of fans, whether they’re actively campaigning for a show’s resurrection or just very visibly continuing to flip out over and scrutinise and dissect and love a show that’s been off the air for nearly 15 years. I can’t help but think that when people complain about reboots and revivals, they sense that people stay loyal to a show, or to its characters, out of some sort of slavish inertia, which has no connection to what actually happens in fandom.

All of this isn’t to say that fans are looking for revivals that peddle nostalgia alone. In a review of the first three episodes of the new X-Files, the Guardian expressed its frustration:

The best reboots need to make a case for their very existence, otherwise it’s just the members of Fleetwood Mac getting together to play Rhiannon for the millionth time as we clap along and remember the good old days. New episodes should create something new, should take a series to a different place or comment on their legacy rather than just muddling around in the past hoping it’s enough for some good ratings.

Fans – who are rarely satisfied, and always ask for more from their media – want to push the story along, too. (The fact that they can do this while still enjoying clapping along to Rhiannon for the millionth time might baffle some critics, but what can you do.)

But developing the story may look different to different people: take the complaints (from George Lucas, but also plenty of other guys on the internet) that the new Star Wars just spins its wheels and plays to the crowds’ expectations. And then consider how the film, with its pair of leads being a woman and a black man, both wielding a lightsaber, arguably breaks more new ground than any series of plot twists every could. And if the audience enjoyed itself along the way, seeing something new while still revelling in the old things it loved, even better. Fans, serviced.

That’s not to say that the new X-Files is necessarily progressively forging into the future. (In fact, it’s come under fire for getting a bit stuck in the past.) But the television landscape is broad and varied enough that TV no longer has to mean one thing: we’re seeing the earliest hints of the long tail of the internet reflected back on our screens.

“Reviews in the US also indicate that the series vastly improves,” The Telegraph wrote in its review of the first episode. “But on this form, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most loyal X-philes still believing.”

I understand that shows like to have broad critical or audience appeal. I’m just not sure there’s anything wrong with a show having deep fannish appeal instead. (And by the way, from what I gather from seemingly devastated fan friends and critics alike, the show does get much better. Like, they’re devastated by their emotions, not the quality of the writing.)

If this is the first year of the great wave of revivals – potentially a new format for media storytelling, fueled by fannish devotion – then I can think of no better show than The X-Files to lead the charge.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.