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Arts & Culture

How Should You Watch And Read And Listen? However You Want

A young adult watching TV.
Marcelo Poleze

However you want to watch Breaking Bad is fine with me.

I just want to clarify that, because yesterday in Slate, Jim Pagels took the position — or perhaps, more correctly, struck the pose — that you shouldn't "binge-watch" television, as many people do with serialized shows like Breaking Bad and Homeland. He argued that to do so deprives you of personal relationships with characters, denies you suspense and episodic structure, and disrupts timelines by getting you out of sync with real seasons and holidays and so forth.

All of these arguments are patently silly, and I cannot imagine that even Pagels takes them seriously. Nobody really thinks you need to spend time with fictional characters the way you do with real people (otherwise it would be equally wrong to read a book in a weekend instead of over the course of a year). The idea that suspense can't work in a single burst would be news to, say, Alfred Hitchcock. Episodic integrity doesn't demand one episode at a time any more than chapter integrity requires one chapter of a book at a time. Shows are just as likely to take place in a continuous timeline (making a binge-watch more "accurate" than one episode per week) as they are in some sort of mirroring of the real calendar. (Furthermore, what are you supposed to do about watching Downton Abbey in its native seasons, since I am assuming your time machine has not arrived from Amazon either?)

It's very tempting to dismiss the entire piece as silly fight-bait, which it mostly is. But it does drive home one fine point: commentators sound increasingly crank-like when they give consumption-of-culture instructions.

It used to be that when you wanted to take in a particular piece of media, you were probably going to consume it the way everybody else did. The newspaper is the newspaper, a book is a book, and a TV show that's on every week that has to be watched live every Monday night or missed entirely will be seen approximately the same way by everyone. Sure, we might have read paperbacks instead of hardcovers, or we might have watched movies on television. But those were the exceptions; those were the secondary ways of taking things in. We don't live in that world anymore.

There are all kinds of ways to absorb culture even when it's fresh, and there's nothing particularly sacred about the way that comes first. If you watched The Wire on HBO, you got it once a week, about an hour at a time, not because David Simon necessarily thought that was the optimal way to take in his narrative, but because that's how a television series is structured within HBO's business plan. If you watched it on DVD, you may have found that you could track the intricate plotting more easily and find connections between stories more readily. Maybe if you watched much of Lost in bunches of episodes (as I did), you found the slow parts of the narrative less frustrating because they didn't last for months. Maybe you concentrate better when you can watch several episodes at once. Maybe you don't like following more than one complicated antihero narrative at a time.

Moreover, "watch it the way it was originally shown or watch it in an inherently inferior fashion" is a false choice. The break between seasons on a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad isn't determined by a creator sitting down and deciding that, say, a year-long break is a great idea and builds the right amount of suspense. It's determined by the answers to other questions: What other shows does the network want to put on in the meantime? Whose contract is settled? What time of year works best for the show in terms of the audience and the competition? The business side has as much influence on lots of these decisions — including, in the case of AMC, the insertion of commercials you don't have to stop for if you binge-watch the show after the fact — as any creative impulse.

It's one thing to encourage people to enjoy movie theaters instead of watching films on their phones, for instance, if you're making that argument from passion and enthusiasm. And there are certainly issues of courtesy — not texting at the movies, giving a live performance your attention — that affect people other than you. But more and more by the day, nobody cares how writers think they should watch things or read things or listen to things.

And as much as this particular scolding about binge-watching isn't meant to be taken seriously, I do think the relationship between critics and viewers takes a beating every time a writer gives readers another reason to believe that they're being scolded for what they enjoy and how they enjoy it. I mean, it's one thing when you feel tut-tutted by a critic for liking Dance Moms or The Bachelorette; who ever thought you were going to be dinged as a philistine for gulping down episodes of one of the best TV shows in history?

Even taken as simple poking for poking's sake, I don't think this is good for the conversation, particularly. Cultural commentators are in a tricky place with audiences, who are happy to be challenged but, in my experience, a little worn out from being perpetually corrected.

My advice? Watch Breaking Bad. Watch it however you need to, because it's awesome. It took me a long time, because the first few episodes were so brutal that I felt like it was going to be entirely too violent to be up my alley, but I'm glad I made the investment. I encourage you to watch it on a big TV. Or on a small TV. Or on a tablet. Or on a phone. Whatever will get you to actually watch it, that's a perfectly fine way. Optimal? Suboptimal? I don't know. Heck, maybe we'd all be better off watching it in an IMAX theater while getting pedicures together. But I'm not going to be stopped from watching it by the fact that that particular set-up isn't happening.

At least not yet.

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