Early Adventures in Binge-Watching

Every Thursday, our staff of pop culture addicts tackles a topic or question about movies, music, comics, video games, or whatever else is itching at our brains.

Last weekend saw the release of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a series initially designed for weekly network television that instead ended up premiering on Netflix, with all thirteen episodes available immediately. Despite not being tailor-made for marathon viewing like other, pre-planned Netflix original series like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt still possesses that je ne sais quoi that hooks viewers into digesting the entire season in one six-plus hour sitting.

Clearly, a TV series doesn’t have to be built with binge-viewing in mind for viewers to want to experience it that way. In fact, there are some shows that have had us glued to our seats for all-day marathons since before we even put a name to the activity. Here’s some of our staff’s favorite shows to binge-watch that were produced before it became our culture’s preferred way to watch TV.

evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)

Evangelion is the first show I ever binge-watched, off of third generation bootleg VHS tapes in 1998. It’s a show that hit me at the perfect age/angst focal point in my life to have maximum impact, so it careened into me like a freight train that first summer as I downed the first twenty episodes in a single day. It’s difficult for me to comment on whether or not it’d work for someone coming to it as an adult, but it’s a show that had an incalculable impact on my adolescence, and the binging process was a big part of that.

Probably the prototypical deconstructionist anime, it’s the story about a group of hormone-driven depressed fourteen-year-olds, hormone-driven depressed 29-year-olds, sci-fi mysteries, a cornucopia of sacrilegious imagery, and the big-ass feral robot that unites them all. While the show has a four- or five-episode monster-of-the-week fakeout section in the middle, it largely maintains a consistent, impressive forward momentum that doesn’t let up until the truly apocalyptic finale(s). Long story short: it’s really hard to put down. I binged it, and then I brought the tapes to a friend’s house and we binged it together, and then the next day we invited another friend over to binge it a third time. I can’t say whether or not it’d have the same spellbinding effect at 30 that it did for me at fourteen, but it’s hard to argue with the show’s enduring effect on pop culture as a whole and the fact that I’m still frothing at the mouth for the upcoming final retelling/sequel (it’s ambiguous) film.

– David Uzumeri

Futurama

Futurama (1999-2003, 2008-2013)

From a purely practical standpoint, it’s pretty obvious why Futurama works as a binge-watch. Without the advent of Netflix, this animated sci-fi caper might only be remembered as the Simpsons cousin battered half to death over fourteen years of agonizing will-it-won’t-it cancellations, renewals, and network changes. When Matt Groening and David X. Cohen wrote the first thirteen episodes for Fox in 1998, the network executives had a collective fainting spell over their “racy” content:  Alcoholic robots? Heads in jars? Suicide booths? It seemed all but impossible to put such vicious humor on the air, and all but impossible it was. The binge-watch allows the Futurama viewer, whether revisiting the series for the hundredth time or completely new to the franchise, to enjoy the show in its entirety without such stressors as, “Is this too dark for TV?” “Will it make it another season?” “What if it just runs forever and gets bad like The Simpsons did?” These questions are rendered moot in the face of the “Play Next Episode” button. (The answers, however, are: Yes, No, and Well, It Didn’t, respectively.)

And while many if not most half-hour comedies made before the 2010s suffer under the weight of consecutive marathon viewing, Futurama floats ably by, shockingly relevant and brutally funny despite technically spanning three decades of television and one thousand years of narrative. Futurama may appear bawdy and loud at first glance, but that only belies its true nature: it is actually a delicate and intricately layered pastry, a baumkuchen of a television show, if you will. Over the course of your binge, you will discover plotlines that tie together over and over again. Single scenes are built out moment by moment like a precognizant Breaking Bad. Stories weave together through space and time in ways both bogglingly complex and heartbreakingly simple.

And there is heart here—despite its episodic format of intergalactic shenanigans, Futurama works and will always work because it is rooted first and foremost in the relationships between its characters. Groening is a success not only for his comic and artistic genius, but for his deep understanding of and generosity toward each of the hundreds of lives he’s created to populate his worlds. There is no sentimentality to be had here, only the inevitable emotions that come from truthful writing. Not every episode hits perfectly, but most of them do, and the beauty of the binge is that you’ll probably never even notice its weaker points.

– Haley Winters

buffy

Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel (1997-2004)

I was enraptured with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel from the very beginning. I watched the shows live, experienced the annoyance of changing out the DVDs every four episodes as I went through the box sets, and binged both shows from beginning to end no less than four times on Netflix. Buffy premiered as I was bridging middle and high school, right as puberty hit, at that influential age when something you love can really shape you as a person (and it did). If you’re even remotely familiar with the shows, you probably have the gist of it: Buffy Summers is a vampire slayer, a chosen one with super strength who falls in love with a vampire named Angel (it’s OK; he has a soul). Being that it’s the forbiddenest of forbidden love, Angel eventually leaves after three seasons for Los Angeles to be a broody detective in his own show.

You’ve probably heard fans gush over Joss Whedon’s talent for writing strong female protagonists and witty dialogue, and, well, they are not wrong. I never tire of these quirky but lovable characters as they banter back and forth over anything from prom to the apocalypse with the same dry humor. What a concept to write teenagers, women, villains, and even demons like people, and then place them in a supernatural universe that just loves to be unpredictable. After all, these are shows about a pint-sized cheerleader who can punch through walls, and monsters who will rip your throat out but also enjoy watching soap operas with your mom. Pretty much every character is thrust through some kind of dynamic transformation, and no one comes out the other side unscathed.

The shows’ structures, both as a whole and per episode, contribute to the overall binge-worthiness. Buffy balances apocalypses with the struggles of daily life, whereas Angel is more of a procedural in which the detective struggles with his past (like, Victorian past), but both shows have the same development. Earlier seasons have the same “monster of the week” theme as the early X-Files, but they still feature overarching plotlines that hook you throughout and become more complicated as the shows age. Episodes hit more often than miss, jumping around from straight-up comedy (the dark hero is turned into a Muppet, for example), to devastating episodes dealing with death, to experimental episodes that are entirely dream sequences or lacking verbal dialogue. This roller coaster of emotion keeps it fresh and addictive, plus there are running jokes that traverse both shows with high payoff. Top all that juicy content off with fashion-forward wardrobes, kickass theme songs, and hilarious CGI that has not aged well, and you may find yourself an addict.

Sarah Register

babylon5

Babylon 5 (1993-1998)

Writer-producer J. Michael Straczynski’s original pitch for Babylon 5 referred to it as “a science fiction novel for television.” He assured his nervous studio that each episode would still stand on its own for broadcast and syndication, and afterwards they treated him with, in his words, “benign neglect.” So it can’t be said that Babylon 5 was not meant to be binge-watched. What can be said is that it was unusual to outline the show in that fashion in the early ’90s, when the concept of television on commercial home video was in its infancy.

To appease the studio, JMS set about writing “A-plots” that concluded in the allotted 45 minutes, and “B-plots” that were more open-ended and mysterious, setting up his five-year arc. Eventually, the mythology got so dense, and the fanbase so dedicated, that JMS was able to ditch this structure and produce long stretches of episodes that incrementally advance one massive plot. His foresight also famously allowed the production of a first-season episode as the first part of a three-parter that would be completed, via time-travel, in the third season.

In my experience binge-watching B5 (I created at least a half-dozen addicts in college), the episode that gets the hooks in for good is Season One’s “Signs and Portents.” The A-plot is a fairly conventional battle/heist with space pirates. But the B-plot…a mysterious man asks every ambassador on the station the question, “What do you want?” One of them sees this man’s true nature and flees from him. Another can focus only on revenge against another alien race—he’s too limited. But the third, the bumbling old drunk Londo Mollari, who has just lost his own race’s crown jewels to the space pirates, snaps, “I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy…I want us to be what we used to be! I want it all back the way that it was!” And momentarily, a MASSIVE black ship appears out of nowhere, blows away the pirates, and the next day the mystery man turns up on Londo’s doorstep with the jewels. There’s a new alien race on the prowl, and they are now owed a favor by Ambassador Mollari, who has taken the first step on his road from comic relief, to the show’s Big Bad, and ultimately to something else entirely. I have to beg and wheedle and plead people to watch up to this episode. But after “Signs and Portents,” no one who I’ve been binging with has permitted me to skip one single episode afterward.

– Patrick Stinson

Check back next Thursday morning to see what topic we riff on next. In the meantime, what shows were your early introduction to binge-watching?

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