Television serials typically come to us in one of three forms: the sequential narrative, such as The Crown or Mad Men; the anthology, such as Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone; or the episodic narrative, such as Jeeves and Wooster or Steptoe and Son.
The anthology offers a different story, with a different cast, each week; the episodic narrative features the same cast of characters, but engaged in a different adventure, one often not causally connected to the events of the previous episode. Bertie gets into a new mess each week, only to be eventually and ingeniously extricated by Jeeves by the end of the day.
The sequential narrative, in contrast, tells a continuous story, tracking the Royal family’s crises as they unfold and expand in time – as, for example, Princess Margaret’s marriage deteriorates from one bad incident to the next. When commentators declare the 21st century to be a golden age of television, they primarily have the sequential narrative in mind.
Sequential narratives have been around since the dawn of television. In fact, they preceded television. Many of the early soap operas were originally radio programmes. Daily they would recount the trials and tribulations of their continuing cast of characters at the same time each weekday. When the evening soap operas, such as Dallas, arrived, the rhythm changed. They appeared weekly rather than daily. But either way, everyone watched them on the same day at roughly the same time (adjusting for time zones).
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Things are different now. The age of binge-watching is upon us. Today, we can screen multiple chapters of a television series back-to-back at a time of our own choosing – and from anywhere, if we’re watching on our laptop. When I received my DVDs of the third season of The Good Place, I watched it from beginning to end in a single sitting. It was terrific.
Binge-watching is a practice made possible originally through the purchase or rental of whole seasons of programmes and even whole serials on DVD. But then in 2013, Netflix released all the chapters of that season’s instalment of Orange Is the New Black, thereby making marathon streaming possible. Streaming was clearly more convenient and probably even cheaper than binge-watching DVDs. According to the pundits, we spent an immense amount of time doing it during the recent quarantine.
Binge-watching a sequential television series, such as The Crown, has certain advantages – for example, it makes the experience more like reading a novel (that is, after novels ceased to be serialised). Yet, at the same time, something is lost by binge-watching.
In the old days – before streaming – everyone watched the same instalment of the story at the same time. That created a uniform interval between plot developments – an interval during which we might not only speculate among ourselves about what might happen next, but also about what the characters should and should not do, and about which were ones are admirable or cowards or downright despicable.
In this way, the sequential pacing opened-up a space for us to start conversations with family, friends and even strangers who were, like us, waiting for the same next instalment. The sequential pacing allowed for gossip, in other words, albeit about fictional characters.
Unfortunately, gossip has a bad name. We associate it with saying nasty things about a person behind her back. But we tend to forget the service gossip performs for morality. Talking about others with others enables us to flex and refine our moral muscles by practising how to apply moral concepts; how to ascertain motives, to canvas complications, to assess excuses, and so on.
Usually, we do this with respect to people whom we and our acquaintances know. Of course, in small towns, that was virtually everyone. But in mass society, television supplies us with a shared cast of characters whom we can observe along with strangers from, so to speak, an electronic front porch.
Before binge-watching, I might strike up a conversation at the barbershop between episodes one and two of the first season of Breaking Bad about whether Walter White will kill Krazy-8 and whether it would be justified. But now that is out of the question. I can’t be sure that my interlocutor hasn’t already seen the whole series – indeed, maybe even more than once.
Before streaming, sequential television, it seems to me, was better at stimulating this sort of moral conversation than movies. With movies, the action is complete when you walk out of the cinema (or close your laptop). As the story is evolving onscreen, there is no opportunity to share your thinking with others. By the time the lights in the cinema go up, the movie protagonist has made up his mind and the moral consequences have been spelt out, making speculation on your part beside the point.
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But that is also the effect of much binge-watching. If you’re binge-watching all of season three of Broadchurch, you won’t have the opportunity to debate with anyone whether Mark Latimer should kill Joe Miller, the man who murdered his son, Danny.
With binge-watching we lose an unsung resource for cultivating our moral sensitivities – gossip, in an open-ended and impersonal context – a resource that the cadence of traditional sequential programming made available, if only inadvertently. Of course, critics have long been aware that both the form and the content of a work can be ethically relevant. The advent of binge-watching indicates that the delivery platform can be as well.
This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, senior research fellow in philosophy at Massey College, Toronto.