“It’s going to cause the breakdown of society as we know it.”
That was The Writer’s entirely unmelodramatic assessment of House of Cards, the new political drama series that premiered on Netflix earlier this month, as we had supper one night recently.
His statement was premised on the fact that by releasing entire ‘box sets’ (I use the term loosely, given there’s no actual anything that comes inside a box) at once, the social aspect of television has been removed leading to an eventuality in which we’ll all stop talking to each other, and never ever leaving the house because between Waitrose deliveries and endless episodes of Breaking Bad, well, why would you need to?
I can see what he’s getting at. By releasing the whole lot at once, there are no defined times when the drama pauses, when audiences can collect to discuss and dissect, no ‘water cooler’ moments to be had. There are no enforced weeks between episodes where you can sit and stew and idly speculate about what might come next – or, if you’re TW, posit something that turns out to be bang on the money, meaning you’ve ruined the ending for your viewing partner. (I swear if he pulls that crap with Breaking Bad, I just might leave him.) Instead we’re left like unsupervised children with an entire bag of white mice, able to binge on as many as we can fit in before we feel slightly nauseous and in need of a run around in the fresh air (although some people do seem to be wholeheartedly in favour of this form of television consumption).
And that’s before we get to the sticky issue of spoilers. It used to be that if you missed an episode of Spooks, you avoided TV review pages and various bits of the internet until you’d had a chance to catch up on the episode. But once a series is out in its entirety, you don’t know which journalist, blogger or person you follow on Twitter who’s retweeting someone else entirely has forfeited a weekend in order to plough through the entire series in a single sitting. Now, there’s no telling where an enormous clanger might crop up, ruining with a single sentence the entire story arc of a series and the hours you’ve lovingly put in to watching.
Yet, for all that, I think TW is wrong on this one.
Yes, this disruptive model is new and a bit different – just like the advent of multiple channels was new and a bit different back in the day. As were the ‘plus one’ channels. As was the ability to pause and rewind live telly; or record an entire series on Sky. But I don’t think we’re seeing the death of television as a social event – because social television survived all those things and it’ll survive this.
Whilst some channels and services like Netflix might opt for binge-release, others won’t – and those who focus on making so-called “destination TV” might be inspired to raise the quality of what they’re producing in the hope that it draws in audiences in increasing number. You’ve only got to look at Homeland (the first series – the second was disappointingly average) or Africa to see that people want to be involved somehow, whether that’s tweeting along, or discussing it afterwards.
Personally, I’m far more nostalgic for that very particular kind of sublime agony that comes with being made to wait to find out what happens next. From unexploded bombs in chest cavities (Gods above, I love Grey’s Anatomy) to the possible death of the President at the end of the first series of The West Wing, there’s nothing that quite compares to the delayed gratification of a bloody good cliffhanger. Because it’s all very well knowing exactly what happens after Walt cooks his first perfect batch of blue meth, but there’s nothing like hearing Ross say “Rachel”, not “Emily” to get you screaming at the telly.