Recently I’ve been binge-watching Agents of SHIELD to catch up and review new episodes as they come up and something occurred to me. As much as I was enjoying SHIELD as just a show, I was also greatly enjoying the watching experience of seeing each episode one after another. This hasn’t always been the case for me: The Walking Dead, for example, was an ok show to watch, but the experience of binge-watching it was a grind. So I got to thinking about what makes a good binge-watchable show, and here are my completely non-scientific findings.
To set some ground rules, we’re going to assume that you have no control over the remote. Either you have two broken arms, can’t find your remote, or are just plain lazy – no matter the reason you can’t skip over intros, opening credits, or ending credits. Also, no odd viewer orders or strange ways to watch, you start from episode one, click play and you’re off to the races. Correct viewing orders is a whole ‘nother beast to tackle, and we’re just here to talk about binge-watching a show the way it was intended.
Here we go.
Episode recaps are fine, as long as they are specific
Let’s start with one that people may not agree with: as long as they are specific to the events happening in the episode, recaps at the beginning of episodes are just fine. Agents of SHIELD really nails this aspect with how they give you flashbacks to moments of past episodes, but only things that are relevant to the upcoming episode. There were times when it really reaches far back in its catalog to pull the right context scene and get it out there, and it always help set me in the right frame of mind for the episode.
Especially for shows that have a lot of disconnected storylines that get dropped for episodes at a time, it’s nice when the beginning of the episode gives you some past scenes to help you remember why the characters or their lives are important at a given time. Even while binge-watching, things get lost in the shuffle as you’re heavily focused on another storyline altogether.
On the opposite end, shows that just straight recap the last episode, are a no-go when it comes to binge-watching. Nobody wants to spend 15-30 seconds recapping events they just watching a minute ago. In the same vein, showing a “next time on..” promo at the end of an episode kills it as well.
Either have a catchy intro tune, or no intro tune at all
Go big or go home when it comes to an intro. Again, Agents of SHIELD does a great job at having nearly no intro song, just a brief few notes while the credits roll usually over a cold open or during the first scene.
The recently-added-to-Netflix Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt goes the opposite direction and has such a catchy intro tune that I could listen to it on repeat and not care. These work especially well for comedies, because it lightens the mood back up if something dramatic or sad happened at the end of the previous episode. Nothing will make you forget about some character’s grave misfortune like a good jingle. This is especially apparent in another comedy that is great to binge-watch, The Office, that frequently drops bombshells at the end of the episodes or supplies heart-wrenching moments only to come back with a light-hearted opening next episode.
Another Netflix original series, House of Cards, doesn’t get it quite as right. The intro is a long 90-seconds full of a repeating tune and various shots around DC. Sure, it’s a great intro the first couple times but after the 23rd time you just want to cut the crap and watch Frank Underwood instead of seeing that same parked white van again.
Characters need to evolve
As much as I love shows like 30 Rock and Louie, binge-watching both of them is not an ideal experience. Each of them have fantastic jokes, great pacing, and excellent characters on a per-episode basis, but watching them one after the other the set ups start to get predictable, and there’s nothing to cling to across multiple episodes. Similar to when you keeping saying a word like ‘mayonnaise’ over and over again until it doesn’t feel like a word anymore, watching characters that stick closely to their archetype without ever really changing stop feeling like characters after a few episodes in a row.
While Agents of SHIELD may take some cliched routes to evolving characters, there is always some intrigue or foreshadowing going on, and a lot of the times the standing of any given character is in question. Because of this, every new episode manages to feel fresh while moving the familiar story along.
Writing that is not formulaic
Formulaic writing can be fine in a TV show when watching on a weekly basis. Usually by the time next week rolls around you’ll forget that you saw essentially the same sequence of events played out with different characters, and it helps give the show its own personality at times. But in a binge-watching format, all of these patterns stick out like sore thumbs.
This was one aspect that made watching The Walking Dead’s third and fourth seasons in a row become a painful grind. The show clearly demands a walker killer between the 15- and 30-minute mark almost every episode, and it becomes extremely obvious when watching characters going about other activities only to have a forced attack occur again and again. After watching so many episodes in a row it becomes easy to spot when one is coming, based on how the writers ramp up tension until an attack occurs. Believe it not, seeing Daryl stab a walker in the head for the 14th time in a row gets old.
Agents of SHIELD on the other hand, is written more like one long story, and there is no need for a repeated fight or other trope to occur every episode. Again, the show and its writing aren’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s varied enough so that nothing sticks out during a binge-watching session.
Breaks for commercials can not be too hard
This was the only major problem for Agents of SHIELD. It’s a big problem for broadcast TV shows in general, as they’re written for mainstream primetime and geared toward commercial breaks. Several times in SHIELD a character would be shot or otherwise in danger then a big dramatic cut to black would occur. In normal viewing circumstances, this is when a commercial would happen and you and your friends would be left wondering if Coulson was actually shot or if he was just playing a part to trick a Hydra futigive. While binge-watching, there is no break. It’s cut to black and instantly you get the answer. Were there no commercial break planned, a lot of circumstances would need to be written differently and they come across poorly when there is no break in the action.
Counter that with something like Breaking Bad, where each episode plays almost flawlessly without commercials and feels like a movie in itself.
All of this is completely objective of course, and if you have any other ideas about what make a great binge-watchable TV show, let me know in the comments or on Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!