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The Case for Savor-Watching

Too many shows, too many streaming services, too much content. Watching TV has become a chore. But there’s a better way to enjoy the deluge.

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

I’m still only halfway done with the second season of Master of None. I put a bookmark in it after the dinner party episode, and the last I’ve seen of Dev is that long, excruciatingly sad shot in the back of an Uber. Since the entire 10-episode season has been out for almost two weeks now, the fact that I’ve not finished it yet might seem like I don’t like it — but actually, the opposite is true: I’ve been loving it so much that I don’t want it to end. I’ve been relishing the time spent in the romantic, pasta-crazed, neo-new-wave world that Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have created, and since I had to wait a whole 18 months between seasons, I don’t want to rush through that experience. I’ve been savor-watching it.

The streaming era, of course, has been synonymous with binge-watching: the autoplay feature defaulting to the next episode before the credits of the last one have ended, leading to the type of mindless, wait-when-did-it-get-dark-outside consumption that Portlandia parodied presciently in its 2012 Battlestar Galactica sketch. (Although, here’s proof that it was written five years ago: The two characters were watching the series on DVD, and every few episodes they had to physically get up and change the discs.)

But more and more, the streaming era is also coming to be defined by a constant, overwhelming feeling of excess. (Netflix has been at the forefront of this content deluge, and last month’s manic release schedule suggests that the company has little interest in slowing down.) There are too many shows, most of them drag on for too many seasons, and even the ones that once seemed to have quite definitively ended (et tu, Roseanne?) are now returning in rebooted, zombified forms. And even though we haven’t yet found a way to add more hours to the day, there’s still this impossible cultural pressure to watch all of it, to cover the bases on every possible water-cooler conversation (especially since these conversations are now happening incessantly, and publicly, on social media). At best, this means there is an unprecedented number of good shows to choose from, but at worst it also means that “catching up on TV” has come to feel like a second-shift job, far from the relaxing diversion it once was. Half the time I’m watching something anymore, I’m thinking about what I’m supposed to be catching up on next, usually with the begrudging feeling of a chore. I miss when TV felt less like washing the dishes.

But in the past couple of months, I’ve noticed myself not only making my peace with the fact that I can’t watch everything, but also pushing back against the streaming-company-sanctioned urge to binge. For another example, I could have easily watched the entire six-episode third season of Amazon’s Catastrophe in a night — at 150 minutes, the whole season is only about 10 minutes longer than Fast 8 — but I enjoy Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s caustic back-and-forth so thoroughly that I preferred stretching it out over a week. It takes a certain act of willpower to savor-watch a streaming series, and I can’t say I’m always successful, but I’ve noticed that I almost always get more out of a show when I stretch out the viewing experience.

Sometimes, as with Master of None, it’s an act of appreciation; other times it’s recognizing that a show is so emotionally demanding that I need some time to process it. I know I’m not alone in that last impulse: On a recent episode of our podcast The Watch, Leftovers cocreator Damon Lindelof talked about how he likes to spread out viewings of the Amazon series Transparent, but that doing so requires him to “self-regulate, to some degree.” “After the turtle [episode],” he recalled, “my wife and I sat there with our mouths open, like, ‘We can’t watch any more Transparent tonight.’ We’re taking, like, three days to be in the beauty of what just happened.”

Are there certain kinds of streaming shows that people savor rather than binge? Netflix — always eager to control the narrative without revealing too much information — would like us to believe so. In June of last year, the company released a “report” called the Binge Scale, which claimed to divulge which of its original series viewers “savored” and which they “devoured.” The report didn’t say much about their methodology (Netflix also declined to talk to me for this story), but did attempt to sum up their findings neatly by genre. On the “savor” end of the spectrum were the categories “irreverent comedies” and “political dramas,” and on the devour side were “horror” and “thriller” shows. “Members blow through Breaking Bad, Orange Is the New Black, and The Walking Dead,” the study concluded, “[and] are captivated by House of Cards, Narcos, Bloodline, and Mad Men.”

“I call bullshit on all of it,” says Oriana Schwindt, who’s reported on TV for Variety and the International Business Times. “It’s not a bad idea. And people buy into it because … people [like to] read things about Netflix, and so the content economy has forced us into being like, ‘OK, fine, here’s some charts.’” (The Binge Scale’s red flag for me, I have to admit, was the idea that there are people out there who “savor” the faux-prestige, cliff-hanger-obsessed House of Cards.)

The notoriously tight-lipped Netflix has never been the most transparent self-reporter, and the Binge Scale may not be telling us anything we don’t already know. “People on Netflix are more inclined to watch large amounts of a show in one sitting,” Schwindt says, “because you make it that way.”

In the age of streaming TV, service providers have unprecedented control over the suggested pace at which people watch TV. With their pioneering strategy of releasing entire seasons at once and their ever-shortening autoplay time (the next episode of Master of None starts playing five seconds after the previous episode’s credits roll), Netflix has staked a flag firmly on the binge-friendly end of the spectrum. But more recently, other streaming services seem to be cultivating a middle ground between bingeing and savoring. Hulu made the first three episodes of its dystopian original series The Handmaid’s Tale available at once, and then slowed the pace to releasing one new episode each Wednesday. (It’s also doing the same thing with the third season of its original comedy Casual.) Showtime’s revived Twin Peaks did them one better, releasing the first four episodes via its Showtime Anytime app all at once last Sunday, and then making viewers wait a whole two weeks for the fifth — while giving them plenty of time to rewatch and speculate on the initial block of episodes. (On Twitter, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson has proposed calling this rollout strategy “the demi-binge.”)

If more services begin to adopt this model, though, it may not be about the sanity of the viewer so much as the bottom line of the company. As the streaming market continues to grow, companies have reason to become increasingly concerned about their churn rates (the rate at which customers unsubscribe from a service). “When you release a show all at once and encourage people to binge it,” Schwindt tells me, “that encourages churn. Because people will say, I’ll subscribe for Orange Is the New Black, I’ll watch the new season in a week, and then I’ll unsubscribe again.” With its one-or-two-episode-at-a-time release strategies for original programming like Difficult People and Seasons 4 and 5 of The Mindy Project, Hulu has for several years now positioned itself as a champion of the gradual rollout. With the “demi-binge” release strategy of The Handmaid’s Tale, though, it may have found the perfect happy medium between Netflix’s binge-imperative and the more traditional same-time-same-station pattern of broadcast TV. That first three-episode stretch got viewers hooked (perhaps a necessary concession for a brand-new show), but the slow rollout of the following seven installments has also suggested that each episode is meaty enough to mull over — and, most crucially, talk about — for an entire week.

Last month, on the eve of the Big Little Lies finale, I broke some terrible news to my mom: The show was a limited series and wouldn’t be coming back for a second season. (Or at least we thought so at the time.) I don’t think I’d witnessed such despair since half the class failed to show up at Amabella Klein’s birthday party. “Noooo!” she wailed. Her assumption that the series would go on long after it jumped the shark had made the experience of watching the first six episodes a little less sacred. But now that she knew it wouldn’t be back, she told me, she wished she’d savored it a little more.

The limited series is inherently conducive to savor-watching, since there’s a sense of mortal finitude baked in from Episode 1. And in an era of too-muchness, concision itself has become a fetish commodity; that’s a big reason viewers had been worked into a fervor by that last episode of Big Little Lies. But so, too, are those psychically draining shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, Transparent, and — one commonly mentioned as I chatted with people for this piece — The Leftovers. Even if, as in the latter case, the show follows a more traditional once-a-week airtime, most viewers would find the emotionally wrenching Leftovers borderline sadistic to binge. Times that I’ve fallen behind on that one, and had a few back episodes queued up in my DVR, I’ve preferred stretching them out over at least a couple of days; when I’m caught up, it’s one of the shows I’m grateful to have a full week to process. A coworker said to me of the show, “It’s the one hour each week I get really pumped to get super depressed.”

The more TV shows there are, the greater the cultural imperative to rush through each one of them and immediately formulate an opinion … perhaps for no other reason than moving to the next show and doing it all over again. And so I’ve found it oddly liberating to slow down a bit, to accept the boundaries of my free time and the mortal but pragmatic fact that I know with certainty that I will never get a chance to watch all of the shows. All the better to enjoy the ones I really like. Savor-watching Master of None has not only felt like a small way to regain a personal sense of control over my own habits and impulses as a viewer (chill, Netflix), but it’s also felt, in this fast-paced culture, like the most meaningful way of paying tribute to it. Embracing savor-watching has slowly diminished that feeling that “catching up on my shows” is just another nagging thing to scratch off my to-do list. The dishes are still another matter.