It all started with binge-watching, our national compulsion to plow through dozens of episodes until our eyeballs get crispy. We’ve been doing this forever, or at least since DVD box sets allowed us to speed through scores of Tony Soprano’s whack jobs instead of waiting a full week for a new episode. But 2013 marked a banner year for original content providers actually catering to marathon viewing sessions. Netflix released a full season of House of Cards all at once, making binge-watching cheaper and more accessible than ever — just $7.99 for a one-month subscription to Netflix, versus $60 for your typical DVD set, plus about $2.99 for a package of cold hot dogs to consume before the finale. (No time to microwave! Must not leave couch!) Big stars went smaller-screen with bite-size, all-you-can-eat programming, like Yahoo!’s five-minute-or-less episodes of the comedy Tiny Commando, created by Ed Helms (The Office), or Amazon’s political satire Alpha House, starring John Goodman, which plays like a movie cut into pieces. And Arrested Development specifically tailored its fourth season to binge-watchers, with callbacks and call-forwards that you might not remember if you were watching week to week, and interwoven plots that revealed clever surprises over time, proving that streaming has created new storytelling opportunities for writers. (Yes, you haters, that ostrich was there in episode 1 for a reason.)
Better yet, we discovered that binge-watching might even be good for us. Take Breaking Bad, the best show of the year — and one of the most binge-watched programs on Netflix. Part 1 of season 5 ended with 2.8 million viewers in September 2012; when it returned for a second half in August, the premiere grabbed 5.9 million. So no one can blame new media for the downfall of television if it’s actually persuading more people to watch TV. Also, those reports that binge-watching will give us ADD? Not true. Our attention spans are getting longer. According to The Wall Street Journal, 73 percent of Netflix members who started streaming season 1 of Breaking Bad ended up finishing all seven episodes. For seasons 2 and 3, that rate jumped to 81 percent and 85 percent, respectively. As for the idea that absorbing too much entertainment too quickly rots your brain, well, I just tore through a 700-page novel last weekend, and nothing’s oozing out of my ears. Yet.
Binge-watching has become so popular, it’s even forcing networks to pick up the pace. But because they’re stuck with the same old weekly model, they’ve developed a less satisfying strategy: speed-plotting. Showrunners are adding bigger, wilder twists to each episode, hoping that viewers will watch in real time instead of waiting to catch up on DVR, since social media could spoil everything in the meantime. There’s a reason all of your favorite major TV characters died this year. It’s the same reason Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess (Zooey Deschanel) had already hooked up by the second season of New Girl, why Fitz’s (Tony Goldwyn) affair with Olivia (Kerry Washington) leaked to the press so quickly on Scandal, and why Nashville capped off its season 1 finale with a car crash, a funeral, a marriage proposal, a fake pregnancy, and some spectacular vomiting into a houseplant. If binge-watching has offered us the chance to see four cliff-hangers in one night, it looks like speed-plotting is pressuring the networks to package them all into one episode, just to keep up. And now that Nielsen measures a show’s “unique audience” by its Twitter posts, showrunners have an extra incentive to give fans something crazy to tweet about.
This craze won’t last forever. At some point all of this high drama will slow its roll. Netflix recently announced that its next original series, the animated comedy Turbo FAST, will be released in small episodic batches instead of all at once. (It’s a kids’ show, and toddlers don’t binge-watch.) In Norway, “slow TV” is already taking over small screens, with millions of viewers tuning in to watch 14 consecutive hours of a regular human being chopping wood or knitting. Last month, an American production company acquired the rights to bring the slow-TV format to the U.S. Before that happens, though, we’ve got a lot of TV to catch up on. So go ahead. Watch it all right now, very quickly. Get your cold hot dogs while you can.