Random Thought Corner: The Curse of the Boxset

random thought corner boxset

Some eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that Movie Lottery hasn’t been updated in a shamefully long time. There is a legitimate reason for this: I’m in the final six months (fingers crossed!) of my PhD, and have had to prioritise my university writing over my blog posts. It’s understandable, right? Well, it would be, I suppose, if that were the only reason. Now is the time to stand up and admit the truth: I am a boxset addict. You might have seen Virgin Media’s recent “boxset owl” adverts, with the endearingly wide-eyed owl resolutely staying up until the wee hours of the morning, just to watch “one more episode”. That’s me.

It’s not that I’ve not watched any movies over the last four months. I’ve tried to go to the cinema more often, I’ve attempted to clear our Tivo box of some of the films I’ve recorded (because we just don’t own enough unwatched movies already…) and, if I’m being honest, part of the reason why I’ve avoided picking movies out of the bag is because I just don’t have time to update this blog as regularly as I want, but I still feel an obligation to write about the films on our shelves. But mostly, I’ve spent the last four months watching television – or, more accurately, binge-watching television series. This is the golden age of TV, the emergence of “quality” television, a time when one of last year’s most cinematic events was True Detective. Movie stars – bona fide, Oscar-winning, still-in-demand actors – are now appearing in televisions shows, and there’s no shame in it. It’s no longer taboo, the sign of declining popularity, of desperation. Now, it’s viewed as an opportunity to stretch one’s acting abilities, to truly embody a character in long-form storytelling. The accolades are there, the money is there, the talent is there. TV is where it’s at.

Do I really believe this? Well, in part, of course – visual media is changing, and as more people reject the picturehouses in favour of their home cinema, their 42inch flat-screen HD TV, their surround sound, their comfy sofa, their supermarket-priced snacks, so too is the way audiences consume television. But can I really argue that I am a boxset owl because movies no longer interest me, because there’s just too much quality television? Well, no. Not really.

In the last four months, I’ve watched – well, anything really. If I have a season or more at my disposal, I will watch it. My quality control is now determined by quantity. Some of the TV I’ve consumed has been great: Broadchurch, season one (watched in one day); Twin Peaks (watched over two weeks, with an accidental spoiler revealing the final shot of the final episode with just three instalments to go – thanks a bunch, Empire magazine); Homeland, season 4 (watched over a weekend – the first ten episodes are possibly the most tense television I’ve ever watched, but it was sorely let down by a weak and irrelevant final episode); Orange is the New Black, both seasons (a week’s viewing). Others were more forgettable: Grimm, season three? Four? Once Upon a Time, season 3. Duck Dynasty, season seven (okay, I know it’s trash, and it’s a reality show, but I can’t help but love it – no shame). Almost all of That 70’s Show, despite having seen it many times before, and knowing that it goes on for at least two seasons too long. There are probably others that made so little impact I have forgotten them already. In fact, the only show I’ve not stuck with despite having the first two seasons sitting waiting to be watched is House of Cards – sorry, Kevin Spacey, you just didn’t grab me. I’ve not even dared to get a hold of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, for fear that they’ll be as good as everyone says, and I’ll lose another two or three weeks of my life.

Why are boxsets so addictive? What’s the appeal of binge-watching? Well, there’s something very comforting in knowing that there’s another episode just around the corner. We can get fully immersed in the story, feel involved with the characters in a way that is less achievable in movies – and movies seem to be taking some cues from television. Just look at the Marvel universe, which now spans television, cinema, and asks audiences to follow the characters not just in a contained, two hour story, but in a world that spans years and works in a cross-media format. Consider the popularity of franchises. Viewers love seeing their favourite characters in new situations. The only problem is that, in cinema, we have to wait too darn long for the next two hour instalment. With boxsets, well, it’s instant gratification. We can see the next development RIGHT NOW, and by golly, we want it that way. There’s nothing worse than seeing the final credits roll, the screen go blank, and to suffer the realisation that, after hours or days or weeks of watching, the story is finally over.

Binge-watching is all about instant gratification. It transforms the way we consume television, whether we realise it or not. What’s the point in a cliff-hanger, for example, if we can see the outcome a few seconds later in the next episode? Take the last season of Homeland, for example. Each episode set up the events of the next, leaving me wide-eyed and open-mouthed, feeling stressed and anxious, worrying about the fates of my favourite characters, knowing that this is the kind of show that isn’t afraid to kill off its leads. Yet I had recorded the whole season. I didn’t have to wait a week. I didn’t have to think about the potential effects or the implications of events. I just had to stick the next episode on.

Does this diminish my experience of Homeland? No, but it does alter it. Surely I’m not the only one who realises that, weeks – or even days – after a particularly intense binge-watching session, I can barely remember what actually happened, no matter how much I enjoyed it at the time? Episodes blur together, events bleed into one large, long, convoluted episode. Instant gratification has its perks, but in terms of actually making a real, genuine, long-lasting impact? Binge-watching might make it seem like you’re really experiencing the fictional world – you dedicate hours of your time to it, your life is put on temporary sabbatical while you immerse yourself in another, vicarious living experience – but it’s fleeting, temporary. For one day, perhaps, your focus is rigidly fixed. The next, it’s onto something else. From hard-hitting, intense, political CIA thriller to all-female prison dramedy. From super-weird Lynchian fantasy to camp Disneyfied fairytale, each world ready to replace the previous as the focus of all my attention.

So what about movies? Why is it that, after some intensive binge-watching, when I happily – eagerly – sat for perhaps six or seven hours a night, dragging myself to bed at 2.30am knowing I have an early start the next morning, the idea of sitting down to watch a two hour movie seems like such a chore? It’s not like my boxsets have ad breaks – they’ve either been recorded and stored for future binge-watching (a conscious decision, so bad is my addiction) or they’re on DVD, hopefully with a “play all” button so I don’t need to do anything but sit back and let the fictional world wash over me, wrap around me like a big comfy blanket, familiar and easy. But the pacing is different, whether we take advantage of ad breaks and episode conclusions or not. Despite its long-form storytelling, each episode has pauses and breaks and mini-cliffhangers. It’s like watching six hours of soundbites, the action neatly divided into easily digestible fifteen minute wedges. It’s not like a movie, where you should, ideally, not be distracted, not have bathroom breaks, not get up or discuss the events on screen as they’re happening, or answer that text. Boxsets allow you to do all these things, but there’s always another episode. You can be distracted, but your time can be entirely consumed nonetheless.

What of the future? Well, the problem with binge-watching boxsets is that eventually you do reach the last episode. And then the wait for the next season begins. Instead of pacing myself, of allowing myself an hour a week to slowly digest my favourite shows, I have been a glutton, devouring them all in one sitting. Now they’re all gone and, just like the next instalment of a movie franchise, I have to wait – maybe even years. So maybe now that I’ve run out of boxsets, I can restart watching movies. Or, I could rewatch Buffy. Then I could rewatch Angel. Then I may as well watch Firefly, and Dollhouse – what the hell, why not. Plus there’s still Breaking Bad – most people are horrified to hear I’ve not watched them. And Banshee‘s on television again, that’s ten episodes or so (and it’s great, by the way – really, truly, trashily great). And the next season of Orange is the New Black should be starting at some point, right? Not to mention Twin Peaks – after twenty-five years! And I now have season two of Broadchurch to watch…. Oh well. Movie Lottery will resume… eventually.