The Watching Man: JMT on Marathoning TV On DVD

I would rather do anything other than work. Take this very blog as an example. The fun part, thinking about an aspect of pop-culture, is usually over by the time I start typing. It’s definitely over by the time I try to pull out some worthwhile nuggets from a shit pile of drafts and shape them into something halfway coherent.

When AndyB asked for a piece on the return of Phish and the Dead, I said sure without even thinking about it. I thought I could bang out 1000 words in a couple hours. I was so wrong. I was deeply engrossed in the Shield DVDs, and no self imposed deadline was going to motivate me to finish the piece when there were unresolved storylines. I was totally hooked. A couple weeks later I had plowed through the remaining three and half seasons. There was a nagging pit in my stomach that I should be doing more with my life. AndyB politely suggested that I write something on marathoning DVDs. Of course I committed without thinking whether marathoning provided a better experience compared with the broadcast schedule, or whether the marathon was really just undisciplined binging like any other addiction.

After a hard look at myself, I’ve concluded that I am probably a television junkie who, provided the means, would watch as much television as possible until overdosing. In spite of my predisposition, I have discovered that certain shows improve when viewed in a marathon session. However, being a junkie does not mean that I am not discerning. Heroin addicts may shoot up with oxycodone in a pinch, but it’s probably not their first choice, and crystal meth certainly won’t do much to ease their cravings. Likewise, I don’t watch reality television. I didn’t forget about it, I just have no basis for incorporating it.

In defining a marathon of television viewing, the only important factor is time. A minimum of eight hours in front of the television within a period of fourteen waking hours constitutes a marathon. The length is arbitrary, loosely based on a typical work day but it’s not prescriptive, it’s descriptive. A marathon is not a Guinness World Record attempt, consecutive hours of uninterrupted screening time is less important, than ensuring that only one television program is screened during the marathon. Immersion in a program is a key component to the marathon. Lastly, where an actual marathon may earn you the respect of your peers, a television marathon should inspire a similar level of disgust, or at worst pity.

In my vast experience consuming large doses of television, I’ve found that dramas with season long arcs often benefit from being watched as a marathon. The intensive viewing opens the viewer to emotional responses, heightening the overall enjoyment of the experience. While I was still a student I watched the first four seasons of the Wire over a three week period. Unlike many dramas, each episode did not contain a story that could stand alone, where at least one problem resolved at the conclusion. Episodes contained revelations that fit into larger stories that wove together during the season, but the episodes themselves could not stand alone.

The Wire also had a large ensemble cast, and any given episode could focus on any combination of these characters. The variations between episodes make watching an entire season at once easier. As junkie I plowed through all the seasons I had at my disposal. More disciplined individuals could easily contain a marathon to a single season, as the ends of each provide definitive resolution and closure for most of the story lines. The Wire is a model program that benefits from marathoning.

Other shows with comparable season longs that I watched in heavy doses include the Shield and Friday Night Lights. Both shows have minor stories that are usually resolved within each episode, but many of the stories are carried for the entire season. Friday Night Lights uses the structure of the high school football season as the basis for each broadcast season. That structure is conducive to marathons, the dramatic tension slowly builds for the entire season as the significance of the games increases. By plowing through an entire season at once the viewer is better able to experience this buildup, to empathize with the characters, and ultimately to experience a release when the season ends. Like the Wire, since each season is a relatively contained story, it easy to limit a marathon to a single season.

Unlike the Wire and Friday Night Lights, the major story arcs on the Shield were series long rather than season long. Between the seasons little or no time elapsed within the show’s narrative. The end of each season offers little in the way of closure to the viewer. This structure made the Shield significantly more addictive than either the Wire or Friday Night Lights, and ideally suited to marathoning.

Other programs that would benefit from being watched as a marathon include: Generation Kill, Deadwood, the L Word, and Freaks and Geeks. Possibly Twin Peaks, but my memory is a little fuzzy.

Some programs with season long arcs also have a strongly episodic narrative like Weeds, Veronica Mars, and Entourage. Each of these shows typically has a story that is introduced and resolved in one episode. Weeds might be a minor exception in that stories may take two or three episodes to wrap up. The structure of these shows still lends itself to a marathon, but the benefit of heavy dosing to the viewer is reduced by the consistent resolution of smaller stories, which draw awareness to the distinctions between episodes and which lessen the immersive experience.

Programs that derive their stickiness from suspense and cliffhangers benefit very little from heavy dosing. The experience for the viewer does not improve with immersion. Rather, the overall experience is probably weakened by shortening the period of time the viewer must remain in suspense; from one week between broadcasts to the time it takes to queue up the next episode on the DVD player. This argument might seem counter intuitive since most of us know someone who has plowed through a season of 24 in a weekend. I would include Prison Break, if people actually watched this. I have never heard of a single person who sat through a season of Prison Break in a weekend. This type of heavy viewing is not immersive; rather it is a mild addiction to the suspense and the adrenalin rush it produces.

Teenage dramas with strong soap opera characteristics like Gossip Girl are like the thrillers above. Most plots are wrapped up in a single episode. Typically, episodes conclude with a revelation to hook the viewer and entice them to tune in the following week. When many episodes are watched in succession these hooks have little or no effect, as the viewer can not digest the previous episode or contemplate potential outcomes.

You may have heard people wanting “to get caught up” with a program and thus consuming it in large doses. This is not a marathon, no matter how long the viewer is in front of the screen. For this viewer, there is no pleasure gained from experiencing a huge dose of a program at once. The word choice indicates that the experience is a chore. For this viewer the pleasure in “getting caught up” comes from gaining entry into a group of smarter, savvier, hipper individuals already watching the program. People who “get caught up” want to participate in the discussions around the water cooler about how great the show is, and will invariably evangelize to anyone who has not watched it. They are not to be trusted.

You can follow JMT’s exploits on twitter (… or use it to flame him for ignoring your favorite program

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