Is it Binge-Worthy?

I wrote about Binge watching about a year ago when I was in the midst of catching up through the first nine seasons of a Supernatural, a show which many thought wouldn’t last a single season and then became an obsession for me.  Over the past year I have taken to binge watching as an additional source of research for my writing.

Hold on.  I’m begging you not to go.  I can see you cringe as you read this, and no, this is not a huge rationalization for wasting time watching TV instead writing.  Before you click on another link, please hear my out.  My initial post included a list of binge-worthy qualities and over the past year, having viewed several more full series, I have associated the list of qualities with some of the things I struggle with most in my writing.

First and foremost, a binge-worthy show should be more akin to a novel or literary series than what many TV shows have to offer.  I enjoy many shows that do not fall into this category, like sitcoms and Law & Order along with all of its derivations.  Analyzing some of my favorite shows, I have prepared a revised shortlist of musts for a binge-worthy show and what they can teach about writing.

Must Have:  Plots and with multiple story lines crossing episodes ultimately building to an ending

Helps With:  Plot development

Sitcoms, Law & Order and soap operas have some cross episode storylines and some exhibit at least a little character development but they miss the mark by never building to a single story ending.  These shows are designed to be more like life where there really is no ultimate ending other than death, although for some series even this isn’t the end.

Sure, some of my favorite shows in these categories had series finales that wrapped things up neatly for their faithful audience, but what happened in the very first episode and all the events in-between did not necessarily link directly to the finale.  A binge-worthy show must have this link; the same as a reader would find in a great novel.

In The Killing, Lost and Supernatural the multiple stories are carried through all the episodes in each season and in some cases through to the series finale.  Watching how the writers and creators expertly weave the stories together, wrapping some sub-plots early and introducing new sub-plots later in the series yields plenty of research material to help me do the same in my own stories.

Must Have:  Suspense with each episode leaving the reader wanting more

Helps With:  Scene development

As with great writing, scenes and chapters leave readers with a desire to turn that page, read the next line, the next chapter, perhaps all the way to the end (who cares that I need to get up in four hours and go to work, who needs sleep when what I really need is to find out what happens next!)  This is also what makes binge watching so addictive.  Shows without this element are hardly binge-worthy.

My favorite shows present enough at the end of each episode to satisfy the viewer while tossing in one more tidbit of new or unexpected information to keep my butt on the couch or my iPad in my lap for one more (just one more, I promise) episode.  Using these scenes as a model, I am working to give my own scenes the same unsettling sense of having only one of my main character’s shoes tied while the laces drag loosely behind the other.

Must Have:  Characters developed over the course of the entire series

Helps With:  Character development and character arcs

Many sitcoms are created with characters who have set personalities at the beginning,, showing little change and growth over the course of their runs.  Longer lasting sitcoms usually give us more, but not in the same way a proper character arc bonds the character with the story.  Binge-worthy shows introduce the characters a little at a time, revealing enough for the viewer to understand each character’s actions, motivations and thinking with each situation they encounter.  As the storylines develop so do the characters, revealing how the situations the characters are thrust into force them to change into the character they become by the end of the story.

Lost is a great example which I have studied to understand character development and arcs.  Jack, Sawyer, Kate and Ben all change based on their encounters, hopes, desires and interactions during their time on the island.  Watching them morph throughout the series has been extremely helpful as I attempt to do the same with my own characters.  Seeing character development come to life on screen as created by both the writers and the actors has made it easier for me to translate my own characters’ unique actions and choices into words.

Must Have:  A true sense that the challenges encountered in the early episodes of season one will be wrapped up by the time we reach the final episode in the final season.

Helps With:  Foreshadowing, introducing key information as needed, and typing up the information neatly in the end

Fringe and Lost provide unlimited examples of this vitally important element.  Each introduced an inciting incident early on in their series that led the main characters through twists, challenges, battles and even a few successes before arriving at an ending that resulted in closure for the original incident.  The merits and failures of Lost’s ending have been discussed ad nauseam, and I am not here to argue for or against the creators’ choices in this regard.  I will only say that ending may not be satisfying to all viewers as I am sure we can all provide numerous examples of novel endings that did not meet with our personal satisfaction.

Supernatural, on the other hand, is still in production, but they have already reached several endings resulting in satisfactory closure.  Then the Winchesters always find themselves in the midst of a new inciting incident and run head first to defeat a new threat.  Supernatural is more similar to the Harry Potter series than a single novel.  The characters are consistent, the threats are generally from the same villains yet each season reaches a satisfying ending for the events encountered in the early episodes.  I truly hope the writers see how important it is that their faithful viewers experience a satisfying wrap up to the entire series linking all the way back to season one by the time they choose to end the series.

The key that makes most of these series re-watchable is the new information expertly placed in early scenes that work to support the ending.  In my first viewing I missed much of this information or simply did not recognize it’s significance, but now see the importance of including this information when they did.  I am currently struggling to ensure my ending will be supportable by information presented to the reader throughout the novel.  My story has little chance of success if the climax and any subsequent wrap up is riddled with new information.

Binge watching is something you cannot do every day (okay, you probably can but should you?)  It’s not usually planned, it just happens.  My wife says, let’s go watch a Murdoch Mystery, then six episodes and four and a half hours later, one of us is getting up to order take-out so we can plow through the remainder of the season!  But, there is some value for writers to study those shows that are binge-worthy.

Coming up in my next post I will offer my own top ten binge-worthy shows .  I will also include a few honorable mentions which did not make the list mostly because I have not seen the series or enough episodes to adequately judge their binging value.

As they used to say in television, Stay Tuned!

Advertisements

The Pleasures and Pains of Binge Watching

This has become my true pleasure of late.  Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m obsessed.  I am amazed at the large selection of past TV shows that I’ve never heard of before, that were competing with other programs to held my interest when originally broadcast, or that I simply never got into at the time.  Add in the numerous new content offerings that are readily available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video and my watch-list is packed full.

I was binge watching shows I had saved on the DVR long before the term was even coined.  Since my wife and I do not always enjoy the same programs, I would save several episodes of Lost, Fringe, and Chuck on the DVR during their current seasons so I could sit down to watch when I had the TV to myself.  Since then, I have watched Twin Peaks, Supernatural and a couple of seasons of The X Files.  My wife and I have binge watched the first season of The Blacklist and The Killing.

I compare binge watching to reading a novel or collection of novels.  I’m not talking about when you settle in to catch up on reality programs.  I’m talking about taking in one or more full seasons of a drama or comedy.  As I have finally caught up to the current season of Supernatural (Yes, I have binge watched all 9 prior seasons over the past 2 months), I am now searching out my next streaming adventure.  I just fell into Supernatural from a Netflix recommendation, so finding a replacement that lives up to Supernatural’s standards or those of other shows I have loved might take some work.  I have put quite a bit of thought into what my favorite shows have in common that make them so enjoyable to me.  Like anyone who keeps returning to Agatha Christie books after searching high and low for a mystery that lives up to the standards she developed, I too am looking for the next Lost, Fringe or Supernatural.

To be a success in my eyes, I have put together the following keys to a thrilling binge watching adventure:

  • The overall concept needs to have a storyline that continues from episode to episode, season to season, building to a climax and leaving you hanging at each season finale.  Binge watching offers the advantage here – you don’t have to wait several months for the next season to begin to discover what happens next.
  • We need a long term relationship with the characters to feel truly connected to the show.  Essentially the same cast of characters should be included from episode to episode so we can root for those we like and root against the characters we don’t.  Sure, some of our favorite characters will need to die, but if they do, their deaths need to be worth it in the end.  As we hope our lives have meaning, the same is true for those characters who are lost.
  • As with any good novel, each and every scene should move the story forward, add suspense and work toward the ultimate ending the reader waits for until the very last page is turned.  Good episodic television will do the same with each episode acting as a chapter of a book, teasing the viewer/reader with new information which leads to the final reveal or intentionally down the wrong path.  This, I think, is why most reality TV is a big turn-off for me.  With most popular reality programs, each episode stands on its own, more like a short story than a novel.
  • There must be an end, or at least the expectation that the characters we love and have been rooting for will reach some type of closure for this part of their lives.  Lost, yes I know, there is a raging debate about the ending.  It may not be the ending the faithful viewers hoped for, but I will argue there is an end.  I recall my wife saying halfway through season 1, “If they end up to be dead from the beginning and the island is just purgatory, I am going to be so pissed.”  She barely made it through Season 2 and felt vindicated when I told her the end since she didn’t “waste” watching 4 more seasons to see the ending she had predicted.  I, on the other hand, absolutely loved the show so waste was never a term I used for my time spent watching, then rewatching (at least twice) all six seasons.  Supernatural, my current guilty pleasure, seems to have had several “ends” already.  Although I do not want the series to come to a close, I look forward to a time where the writers will find a way to wrap up all that has happened to the Winchester brothers.

As with any unexpected use of technology, I see the trend in binge watching as an important transition for television.  With more people cutting the cable and focusing on shows that they find important rather than “whatever happens to be on”, television executives will need to be more in tune with this new form of viewing.  Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have already embraced this method of viewing as they release entire seasons at once rather than one episode a week over the course of a season.  Sure, if we happen to binge watch an entire new season immediately after it debuts, we will need to wait several months or a year if and when a new season is produced.  If it catches our attention, most of us will certainly be back.

Another great thing about binge watching is that if it doesn’t grab my attention I can quickly move on to the next show.  But if I am hooked, I can wallow in pleasure watching episode after episode without having to wait a week or more for the story to continue. 

It seems like I have addressed mostly the pleasures, so if I must, here are the pains – I just spent about 150 hours watching Supernatural (probably why I haven’t posted much to this blog for well over a month).  I’m now way behind in my reading – the Kindle books are stacking up, so it’s a good thing they are essentially weightless.  I have a persistent itch to view another episode or start another show in my queue, but I really do have other things I need to do!  Now I’m worried that I may need to find a binge watching addiction support group soon.

Now for the real pain – I made it to the end of the 9th season of Supernatural earlier this week.  I am eager to start season 10, but since I didn’t even know the show existed until February of this year, I came late to the party so my DVR only includes the current season’s episodes 10 and forward.  Sure, I can get the first 9 episodes by buying them on iTunes, but since I don’t own any other episode, it seems like a waste to own this small sub-collection of episodes.  The withdrawal I’m feeling of not being able to see instantly what happens next is the real pain I’m feeling now.  Although I’m excited that Supernatural may continue for several more seasons, maybe for my binge watching guilty pleasures I should stick with shows that have reached their series finales.

I’d be interested to know your binge watching guilty pleasures since I need to fill some time until I can start watching Supernatural season 10.  If you don’t have any show suggestions, let me know if there are any other keys to a successful series are that make you come back for more.

Latest Binge Watching Guilty Pleasure

I have no idea how I ever missed this one.  The premise, plot and structure of the series fall right in line with every checklist item I have for a great show.  I do not recall ever hearing about this program until it showed up as a recommended series when I signed up for Netflix a few months ago.  I immediately added it to my watch list and had assumed, based the fact that couldn’t recall the show ever being on television regularly, that there would only be a couple of seasons.  Then one day a couple weeks ago with nothing else of interest to watch, I clicked on Netflix on the AppleTV and decided to take a chance – Supernatural, a CW Series had made it to the the top of my list.

After only a few minutes of watching, I was truly surprised I had not found it on TV previously.  I joined Lost during the season one summer rerun and was hooked.  I started watching Fringe right from the first season and never looked back.  I was even one of the apparent few to watch The Tomorrow People, which I enjoyed through to the end.  Now, I was venturing into Supernatural and to my enormous surprise there are an unprecedented 9 seasons available on Netflix and one currently showing on the CW.  What?  Could I really have missed this for the last 10 years?  It’s not like I avoid the CW, I did watch The Tomorrow people after all.  What the hell, I was willing to take a shot.  What’s 40 minutes on a weekend afternoon.  I can stop after one episode . . .

Really, I can . . .

Really, . . .

Forty minutes later, I was hooked.  Not just “I’ve got to find out what happens next” hooked, but the full on “I NEED to find out how this ENDS” hooked!  My mind calculated – a 500 page book probably takes me 10-15 hours to read.  Now I had over 200 episodes at 40 minute each.  Uh, oh, that’s over 130 hours (of course by watching on Netflix I’ve cut over 70 hours of commercials!)

The writing, story lines, character development, and suspenseful arcs from one episode to the next were the details that kept me wanting more.  I have to give much of the character credit to the actors since they are the ones who truly brought these characters to life.  The directing and production values are of the highest caliber for a sci-fi/fantasy/action show which is not typically a genre that brings in massive audiences, thus limiting the commercial success and budgets of such shows.

Some of you may be saying that the show sounds stupid or maybe you have stated this in a nicer way, as the show just isn’t for you.  I agree, the show is not for everyone and I would certainly never push a show on someone who simply is not interested, but if you are willing to take a chance and can stand the gore and violence, I do encourage you to give this one a try.  The subject and story lines require a huge leap of faith, but the combination of serious situations and natural comedy help get through this.  It is often gory – for those with weak stomachs, I wouldn’t recommend eating while watching, especially with the numerous maggot episodes.  Some viewers may think the one-liners are a bit cliche or corny, but they fit so well with Dean’s character and reveal how deep the writers and actors have thought out these characters.

What impresses me most are the universal themes that run through the series.  Some themes have been consistent since episode one while others are explored until some satisfying resolution.  Family struggles and finding one’s place in family dynamics; dealing with loss; balancing faith, religion and science; making hard choices and weighing the consequences are only a only a few of the themes that have made this show more captivating than other zombie/vampire/apocalypse programs.  These themes have been addressed on so many shows from sitcoms to dramas since television began, but the way the characters, both good and bad, struggle and deal with these thematic issues has completely drawn me in to each and every one of their personal stories.

The creators have accomplished an impressive feat, completely blurring the lines between good and evil in a subject matter so reliant on this eternal battle.  I find myself rooting for my favorite characters to make the choices I hope they make, being disappointed at the choices they sometimes make, and feeling their pain as they have to live with those choices.  Without being obvious, it’s easy to draw links between the struggles the average person is dealing with and the fantasy struggles on screen.  Sure, Dean’s pending contract with the devil approaching was even associated with cancer in one episode.  To me it does not matter if the writers intended this from the beginning or saw the association later and built on it.  It’s all about how the viewer responds, and for me it is with exciting anticipation.

As I said before, this show is not for everyone, and on that note even television in general is not for everyone.  But, I grow weary of those who refuse to include television programs as works of art.  The raw ideas and execution to its final form take as much creative force as any novel, painting or sculpture.  As an aspiring writing I seek inspiration from any source available, and right now the art of Supernatural has provided my current spark.  Watching each episode has broadened from sheer entertainment value to a study of character and thematic development that I expect to use to enhance my own stories.

I’m halfway through season 5 and my desire to finding out how it all ends is burning as brightly as it was from the start.