Television About Meth is as Addictive as Actual Meth

Published on October 14th, 2011

James looks at the difference between watching weekly episodes vs. marathon DVD sessions, with a focus on Breaking Bad.

Yes, I will be talking about Breaking Bad, but I will not spoil anything and this article will make sense (and still be awesome) if you haven’t seen the show. Dexter fans, just replace ‘cooking meth’ with ‘serially killing people with little consequence for six fucking seasons despite the fact that all of your co-workers are cops.’ Lost fans can use ‘chasing a smoke monster,’ and fans of The Wire can pretend I’m talking about ‘being a good PO-lice.’  Perhaps Sopranos enthusiasts can replace ‘cooking meth’ with ‘eating fried food and being friends with a guy named Big Pussy,’ or Friday Night Lights fans can read it as ‘mournfully throwing a football while Coach whisper-monologues inspirational phrases.’ The television series discussed is of little consequence; how we’re watching is all I’m really discussing.

As the resident MacGuffin Men comedy expert, my consumption of TV is not comprised of a lot of drama. After seeing season 3 of Jersey Shore, I thought Ron and Sammi would be all the drama I’d ever need. However, I watched the latest season Breaking Bad as it came out and I think this might be the most I’ve ever been engaged in a TV show. I was a bit late to the game and only started watching the show after the third season had finished airing, so I watched the first three seasons on DVD at my own pace (quickly) and I’ve been watching Season 4 at AMC’s pace (weekly). These two different viewing styles lead to two different experiences with the show and both have benefits and drawbacks.

Alex touched on this idea briefly in a post about Friday Night Lights, but I wanted to get more in-depth, and I always want to talk about Breaking Bad. I believe Alex’s point was that watching things quickly can increase your enjoyment because you don’t have time to dwell on the negative plot lines. I would say I agree with this, but only partly. I probably overlooked many flaws in Breaking Bad’s first three seasons when I watched them on DVD. In fact, I did that so well that I can’t even think of many specific things I didn’t like early on. But I’m certain the show isn’t flawless.

Not flawless, but fewer flaws than the plan pictured above.

Another benefit is that the show doesn’t seem slow when you watch five episodes in a row. The positive word-of-mouth and Emmy wins brought a lot of viewers like myself to the show; people who found out about it when it was well on its way and had to play catch up. We blast through seasons in a few sittings, and our episode consumption changes once we get caught up and the show’s pace seems to slow down, but this is only an illusion. To re-iterate the argument I’ve seen on several different message boards of several Breaking Bad defenders, Season 4 is just as slow as Seasons 1-3; the set-ups only seem glacial when you have to wait at least a week for the pay-off. When you watch several episodes in a row, you remember the fulminated mercury and the full measures, and when you have to wait a week, you can’t believe it’s the same show as you watch Skyler going over bullet points.

Fly, a ‘bottle episode*,’ is a divisive episode for many people, for the same reason many bottle episodes are: there is little action and while there is character development, there isn’t much plot development. I personally like Fly because it’s well-written, contains fine performances, has some good comedic moments and fleshes out the show’s lead characters well. However, I have a strong suspicion that if I waited a week for that episode and then had to wait another week, I’d feel cheated or disappointed that the arc of the show that I’m so curious about made no progress. This is a flaw in my viewing habits that I would unfairly have taken out on the show, and a result, I’d like the series a bit less. However, Fly was during my catch-up portion of viewing so when I watched it, I also watched the episodes before and after in the same sitting. The episodes surrounding Fly satisfied my appetite for plot progression and Fly itself was a pleasure to watch, increasing my enjoyment of subsequent episodes and my three episode viewing burst was, overall, an enjoyable one.

“I’m not sure if they meant fly as in the animal or the 70s slang for cool but either way I agree!”

*Typically done for cost-cutting purposes either after or leading up to a potentially expensive episode, bottle episodes may feature fewer characters than a standard episode of a given show, and are confined to a much smaller space than usual. Think Community’s literal explanation of the bottle episode last season, the episode of Dawson’s Creek where everybody is cramming for an exam, or (possibly the most famous example) the Chinese Restaurant episode of Seinfeld.

It sounds like having every episode available whenever you want it is the obvious answer. As stated above, you can watch them a few at a time, not get bored and have no time to dwell on the flaws. But having no time to think about the flaws also means you don’t have time to look at anything else. The time in between episodes can increase your enjoyment of Breaking Bad (or similar shows). The week gives you time to reflect, think of different ways to explain what you’ve just seen or make predictions of what you’ll see next. I would list some specifics here but I don’t want to spoil anything, but in any given moment of the show, there are always several things going on that you’re not certain about how they’ll end. I use this time to check message boards and listen to podcasts and hear some fan theories and predictions. For any Breaking Bad fans who like this sort of thing, I highly recommend checking iTunes for the podcast Breaking Good which is thorough, intelligent, entertaining and free, and is a great place to hear ideas about where the show might be heading without having to deal with IMDB trolls. I can’t think of anything outside of the show that has allowed me to appreciate the show more. Rewatching an episode after listening to the latest podcast allows me to see more of the subtleties of the show, the motifs (so many eyes!) and the hints about the future of the story that I would have missed otherwise, and the show becomes better to me. I’m not sure what I would rate Breaking Bad out of 10, but that number would surely be increased as a result of that podcast and other external analyses of the show.

Discussing predictions for the next episode is something Breaking Good does very well and something I enjoy doing with Breaking Bad and shows like it. I find drama shows, typically ones with crimes, seem the best for these prediction games. In The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire you can guess who will die, who will kill them, and whether a particular crime or sting will work. There are power struggles that last multiple episodes, giving viewers plenty of time to dissect and debate and eventually, one of you is right, sometimes in a season finale, or sometimes when you least expect it. I didn’t keep up with Lost, but I was impressed by how mysterious the show sounded and all the debate and discussion in brought out in people. I knew the night the finale was airing because the answers it promised seemed very important to many people around me. J.J. Abrams’ Ted talk is awesome and gets out how mystery increases our appreciation of things, and marathon viewing doesn’t give us time to properly bask in that mystery to get its full effect.

The time in between episodes is crucial for these kinds of ideas to develop. One of the most rewarding pleasures of these shows is after thousands of people spend a week discussing it, combing over details, researching allusions that were made, and scouring cast interviews for hints, sometimes the writers are able to do something that no one saw coming. I find you appreciate the creativity of the writers more after going to such great lengths to figure it out and still being surprised, rather than the brief consideration you can give it during the time it takes you to hit fast forward on the credits and then select the next episode.

Interacting with a community of people watching the show is very helpful with improving one’s appreciation of this style of show. You can find some things that you perceived as definitely a certain way, and then find someone who sees it as ambiguous, and someone who is certain it’s the opposite of what you think. These disagreements can be fascinating. When you consider that you are both watching the same product yet you have such starkly different interpretations reminds you how important the viewer is in the process of appreciating TV, or indeed everything. At the same time, seeing people who agree with you can be rewarding and recent technologies like podcasts and online message boards can make that a reality if your friends don’t have the same taste. Alex isn’t even close to up-to-date with Breaking Bad so I couldn’t ask him if it’s just me who notices that all Walt Jr. seems to do is eat breakfast. However, message boards and podcasts allow me to know that I’m not going crazy, that Flynn is some sort of breakfast fiend, that infant Holly seems to inexplicably be left on her own for episodes on end, that Hank singing Eye of the Tiger is somehow funnier than Rocky and Apollo’s short-shorts beach training footage, even if none of my nearby friends would understand what I’m talking about.

Seriously, funnier than this.

People have talked about how on-demand, DVDs and other recent technologies are taking away from the notion of TV as a shared experience. The theory goes that if everyone can watch things whenever they want,  few will be watching them at the same time and the audience becomes fragmented. There is truth to this but the digital revolution also brought podcasts, repeat viewings and message boards and these are the few ways I feel like I have been sharing Breaking Bad with anyone and/or everyone. This makes me feel like I’m part of a big audience watching the show and for the reasons listed above, it has increased my enjoyment of the show greatly. I would still like the show without those external factors, but they help so much in my appreciation of the quality of the writing and the above benefits I get from being part of the larger audience. These programs are still being viewed by a large audience having a shared experience. In fact, because of communications technology, the audience may be fragmented geographically but it is more cohesive than ever socially. I don’t need to rely on my roommates having the same taste in TV that I do if I want to discuss something about the show, such as whether that sound at the end was someone breathing or tires squealing. (It was tires, by the way.) Beyond these new technologies helping us transcend geographical limitations, it can also trascend temporal. If someone else decides to pick up Breaking Bad next season and has to play catch up with the first 4 seasons, they can still download podcasts and listen in on the debates and analyses . They won’t be able to contribute but they can still feel more engaged with the show as a result of the discourse.

While the marathon sessions are fun and do help glaze over flaws, I find it much more enjoyable to watch them as they come out, then be forced to wait a week and use that time to participate in the community. However, the ability to rewatch things right away also adds to the enjoyment. The ideal combination is having to wait a week but having some kind of on-demand feature, or if you live life on the edge and are willing to commit crimes, access to illegal Internet streams. This way I can be old-school about it, see it when it airs, and thereby still support AMC, and have that shared experience with other viewers, but at the same time, if a podcaster or forum member says that the guy playing Heisenberg in the music video at the start of Negro Y Azul (season 2, episode 7) looks way more like Jesse than Walter, I can YouTube it right away and realize, “Holy shit, it totally does! 35 seconds in! No facial hair!” and try and figure out what that means for the show.

The week in between has made me appreciate the episodes so much more and that’s how I want to watch Breaking Bad until its finale. Of course, even knowing this, and spending all this time writing about it, if you told me that Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season was already shot and leaked, I would watch them as quickly as possible… Just another way Breaking Bad has taught me that even the best intentions can get out of control.

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