"Lost" to "WandaVision": The joys of weekly watching
We might be at a decisive moment in the history of how we watch our favourite shows. Will the relatively new binge-watching model win out, or will we rediscover and return to the pleasures of taking our time?
I will always remember the first “grown up” movie that I loved as a child, and the first time I saw it. Our family was living in Canada, I was about eight years old, and it was a Friday evening. I can be sure of the last of these facts because my dad, back from his day shift as a prison guard, had brought into the living room the family-sized bucket of fast-food and the rented movie that was customary on a Friday, which was Family Movie Night.
Sometimes, my siblings and I would be loaded into the station wagon by Mum and Dad and brought to the Blockbuster, that magical grotto that smelled like the cinema, thanks to the ever-churning popcorn machine, but that offered a seemingly infinite number of VHS tapes, from Disney classics to the Trollies Sing-a-long video I’d repeatedly begged for and had subsequently watched a dozen times. There was always the discussion about what we children wanted to rent versus what my parents wanted (“Not the troll musical again”); the subsequent argument about what was appropriate for us to watch (for our ages and our parents’ strict religious taboos against certain subjects); the inevitable compromise that invariably satisfied everyone once we were full of takeaway and sprawled contentedly across the living room, watching our movie.
This night, the one I recall out of many others lost in the depths of foggy memories, was one of those when my dad surprised us with his own choice of movie. I realise now that many of these movies he rented without consultation were probably those he wanted to watch, and he wanted to forgo his children dithering in the store and bickering about his choice. When he came into the living room that evening, I held on to the slack in the knee of his faded jeans (I was sitting on the floor, colouring a page in a book) and I looked up at the VHS in his hand. My dad looked pleased with himself, the hunter home from the hill to provide the once-a-week treat of fried food and cinematic entertainment, sure that his family were soon to be impressed with the movie he’d selected.
“Is it a cartoon?” I asked.
“No, it’s live-action. That means it’s real people.”
I groaned melodramatically and complained that I hated “real movies”. I only liked cartoons. I had, evidently, strong opinions on cinema at an early age – or, at least, strongly-held prejudices based on the fact that I felt like watching a cartoon and wasn’t getting my way. In spite of having already watched and enjoyed a bunch of live-action Disney films from the sixties, such as The Parent Trap and That Darn Cat! my momentary desire for a cartoon seemed to constitute fair grounds for a categorical position on hating “real films”.
I had no idea that those live-action Disney movies were nothing like what I was to see that evening. My dad had rented Back to the Future. I, of course, loved every time-travelling minute of it, and for a long time after, my brother and I were Marty and Doc Brown, and my bed was the DeLorean, and I re-watched Back to the Future repeatedly.
I’ve always tended to be a latecomer to the party. I didn’t own a smartphone until half a decade after every toddler swapped their teddy for an iPhone. While my generation was the first to have an internet connection in most households, I had to rely on the public library for internet access until I was in my early twenties. And I was a whole twenty-five-episode season late to watching Lost. The first season of the landmark series had been out long enough for the release of a flashy DVD boxset, which I gorged myself on in only a week.
Over the six-year span of Lost’s televised run, I watched the show in two phases. First, having fallen in love with its characters and blossoming mythology, I became desperate to share it with someone, so I introduced my brother to the show. For the first few years, we would wait until a full season was released on DVD, then watch the whole thing over a two- or three-week period. My brother would drop by in the day just to sit around while I wrote at my desk, so we could each have quiet company, and I would put on “just one episode” during my lunch break. By dinner time, he and I would have watched, analysed, and theorised over four or five episodes.
Over the days and weeks that he and I watched each season, we developed a kind of secret club, as if we were still children, one that evolved its own vocabulary and an eschatology for the ultimate fates of Jack, Sawyer, Kate, and all the other “Losties”. This was a vital connection between my brother and me. We shared many bonds and yet some of our most important connectors (my love of literature, his passion for nature) didn’t reach the other. For a time, he was deeply involved with his church, a cult-like religious sect that didn’t think much of atheists like me. At other times, I became swallowed up by my writing at the expense of relationships. Our shared passion for Lost kept my brother and I contemporarily bonded during times when otherwise we only shared overlapping childhoods.
The second phase of watching Lost was an expansion of this network to include the increasing number of friends who also loved the show. But this increase in fanbase meant I could no longer save up each season until it was released as one cohesive boxset. If I didn’t watch week to week, I ran the risk of learning answers prematurely from over-eager friends, losing the opportunity to engage in real time. I would be learning about the mid-series “flash forward” concept while everyone else was preparing for the finale. So I became a real-time viewer. This prepared me for the decade to come, the twenty-tens, in which my group of fellow fans of other series would grow to the millions and span the globe, and the luxury of waiting weeks or months to watch a show became virtually impossible.
The Family Movie Nights of my childhood were revived – reincarnated in new form – by the arrival of Game of Thronesin 2011. The “family” expanded to encompass viewers across the globe, swapped movies for a series, and moved from Fridays to Mondays (for those of us in the UK). This was no longer an end-of-the-week inauguration of the weekend but a start-of-the-week instigator of speculation: Who would die in the next episode? What did this week’s story mean for the overall mythology? Why were the attractive siblings sleeping together when they could clearly get other, unrelated, lovers?
This was also the period in which I discovered the online forums where millions of other viewers connected and communed in these virtual living rooms, the digital connection collapsing geographical distance. These forums were active all week long, as fans updated each other on the discovery of Easter eggs in the latest episode and theories about where the story was heading. Eventually, Game of Thrones became such a cultural touchstone that it transcended demographic barriers beyond geography. When I watched a new episode, I knew it was also being watched (or had recently been watched) by my boss and colleagues at the bookstore where I worked, my siblings, my friends, several million people who would be leaving their opinions on forums and in reviews, the guy who ran the newsagent on my street, my doctor, my neighbours, and the Prime Minister of my country. Probably the prime ministers and presidents of many other countries too.
As Game of Thrones moved into the second half of its eight-season lifespan, another shift occurred in the way we watched serialised programs. Netflix had come into its own and brought to prominence the practice of binge-watching. The streaming behemoth began dropping its shows in blocks of entire series, frequently uploading a dozen or more episodes all at once, so that the window of relevancy became not the months of a season released in weekly instalments but the long weekend it took to gorge oneself on the buffet of a show. There was, for instance, about a fortnight of serious discussion of Stranger Things, which likely would have lasted a solid three months had it been serialised instead.
What left me feeling most robbed by the binge-watch format with Stranger Things was that it was a story designed for fan speculation – about what had happened to Will, what the scientists were up to in that lab, where Eleven had come from, and whether Winona Ryder would bring her performance down from the highest pitch just for a moment – and yet we had no time for wondering about these things between each episode. Viewers should have had the joyful opportunity to sit on each chapter of the story a while, to reflect on each unique, mystery-box season, to pick out the copious references to the movies of the eighties. Like the glutton who binge-eats everything on offer and wallows in regret afterwards, I wish I’d known enough and had enough will-power to pace myself in watching Stranger Things – although if I had, given that the rest of the world was racing through it, stepping back from binge-watching would have also meant leaving the cultural conversation.
As the once-majestic Game of Thrones limped through its final season, losing grace until collapsing in a heap that almost dragged its earlier, more brilliant seasons down with it, the binge-watching model became so normalised that no one seemed to notice or question it much. Three of the best shows I’ve enjoyed over the last three years of this distraught decade – Maniac, Dark, and The Queen’s Gambit – were made available as whole-season releases. Each of the shows was binge-watched and summarily digested, forgotten about in the cultural conversation no more than a month after each release.
Then, in 2020, the monopoly with a mouse mascot created a streaming service, Disney Plus, and announced a variety of the usual for fans of more of the same. When they announced Marvel Studio’s WandaVision, I expected little more than some thrills, a few laughs, and the obligatory scenes of superheroes throwing colourful lasers. The most notable break from the norm was that the show would be released one episode a week. WandaVision ended up being surprisingly thoughtful and brave, and I feel no shame in revealing that I had to hold back tears at the heart-breaking dénouement. Most unexpected, however, was that the experience of sitting down each week with my partner, to join the millions of others who had watched or were currently watching this particular show, brought back to me the pleasures of weekly episodes, a joy that had been lost in the culture of binge-watching.
My partner and I established a space and a time made semi-sacred on Friday evenings, after a day of avoiding spoilers online like vampires shying away from daylight. Friday evening brought with it the beginning of our weekend, the reuniting of our personal lives, and the end of an excited week-long wait for whatever surprises that night’s episode had for us. Those previous days spent in work shone a little brighter in the anticipation of something enjoyable to occupy the upcoming time away from the desk; the evenings spent busily cleaning the apartment, picking up shopping, exercising, and making then eating dinner became less of a burden knowing that a pause was on its way; the passing-ships sensation that underlies long stretches of my relationship was more tolerable given these assured weekly moments of docking together for a while, anchored by the shared experience of watching WandaVision together.
While WandaVision was airing (streaming? The verbs around online programming are unclear to me), the fun of sharing the mystery of its unfolding story was augmented by the expansion of our duo to include the show’s global fanbase. It seemed meaningful that we were all taking part in this ritual on the same day; we knew that most fans would be watching it within this select space of waking hours, which lent a certain immediacy to this event that translated into a sense of intimacy. It is not and will never be equal to the real thing (the bodies in the room, the real-time responses, the influence of another person’s reactions on our own, like the infectious laugh), but it is not nothing. In times like the bizarre global moment during which WandaVision was released, it meant a hell of a lot.
The white space between each Friday-line-of-verse contributes to the poetic shape of weekly watching. Engaging with a show like WandaVision (or Game of Thrones, or Lost), we are not merely indulging in a circumscribed moment; the experience lasts all week while we engage in deep reflection, wide conversation, and diverse theorising. Stories that take big gambles and pose difficult questions, that challenge familiar plot structures and delay gratification, are the stories that live with us the longest and, I believe, change us the most. When we binge a show, we are able only to look back on it, to reflect with hindsight. When we space out our engagement with a show, we can look back at what was and towards what is to come. In the balance between the two, we find ourselves more fully in the perpetual present, immersed more satisfyingly in the ongoing experience.
There is a fairly continuous timeline tracked by television that (beginning semi-arbitrarily at my own childhood) leads us from the nineties through the aughts and twenty-tens to the present moment. Friends takes us from 1994 to 2004, where it hands over to Lost, which runs until 2010. A year later, Game of Thrones charts the next eight years, bringing us to a pause at 2019. Allowing for the likelihood that the pandemic will be for this trend – as it has been for the rest of our lives – a period of lost time, it is still reasonable to wonder what series or streaming event (it almost certainly won’t be televised in the traditional sense) will define the twenty-twenties.
I doubt that the first episode of whatever it will be has been written, let alone aired, but even if we’ve already seen it, we are too close at present to be able to make that call. There is, however, another question to be raised alongside this first question: Will this era-defining show be binge-watched or will we enjoy it at a more thoughtful, enjoyable pace? I am hopeful that as the world moves on and culture forward, we will see a return to the joys of weekly watching.
Thanks to my patrons:
I am grateful to everyone who has shown their support through Patreon, and an especially huge thank you to Hayley Whitehouse-Jones, Albie Morris, Madi Stuart, Nic Morgan, Sara Jennings, Sheri Eastman, Steve Lane.
Patrons get early access to the essays, exclusive content, and are vital to keeping Art of Conversation going. Click here to be part of the conversation at my Patreon.