Ooh, we love it when The New York Times gets all thoughtful about TV. Particularly when it runs an article about TVWriter™’s all time favorite showbiz paradigm shift:
by James Poniewozik
At some point during Netflix’s “Sense8” — a gorgeous, ridiculous series about eight strangers scattered across the world who use a psychic connection to aid one another in fights and at one point have a virtual orgy — I had to ask myself: What am I watching?
I didn’t mean that the way I usually do when reviewing a baffling show. I meant what, in a definitional sense, was this maximalist, supersized, latticework story? A mini-series? A megamovie? To put it another way: Is Netflix TV?
On the one hand, sure. These days, when newspapers have video-production studios and you can watch “The Walking Dead” on your phone, “TV” is a pretty inclusive club. On the other hand, streaming shows — by which here I mean the original series that Netflix, Amazon and their ilk release all at once, in full seasons — are more than simply TV series as we’ve known them. They’re becoming a distinct genre all their own, whose conventions and aesthetics we’re just starting to figure out.
In TV, narrative has always been an outgrowth of the delivery mechanism. Why are there cliffhangers? So you’ll tune in next week. Why are shows a half-hour or an hour long? Because real-time viewing required predictable schedules. Why do episodes have a multiple-act structure? To leave room for the commercials.
HBO series like “Deadwood” — which jettisoned the ad breaks and content restrictions of network TV — have been compared to Dickens’s serial novels. Watching a streaming series is even more like reading a book — you receive it as a seamless whole, you set your own schedule — but it’s also like video gaming. Binge-watching is immersive. It’s user-directed. It creates a dynamic that I call “The Suck”: that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours. “Play next episode” is the default, and it’s so easy. It can be competitive, even. Your friends are posting their progress, hour by hour, on social media. (“OMG #JessicaJones episode 10!! Woke up at 3 a.m. to watch!”) Each episode becomes a level to unlock.
With those new mechanics comes a new relationship with the audience. Traditional television — what the jargonmeisters now call “linear TV” — assumes that your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes — travel, holidays, weekends — to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments.