Watching in a Vacuum: The Marathon Experience

As we roll past the network finales and into the cable premieres, I frequently find myself lacking something to watch. Sure, I could turn on reruns or put half-hearted effort into watching these summer shows that never quite seem to come to fruition–but what I really prefer to spend my TV summer doing is catching up on shows I need to be watching.

In the last month, I’ve watched all of White Collar and Suits, both stellar USA shows that are still airing (Suits premiered last week and White Collar starts up again in exactly a month). But most importantly, I’m undertaking one of the most reputable shows ever made–I’m watching The Wire for the first time. Having been told by everyone I know that it’s the best show ever made (I still cling to the claim for Lost, but we’ll see), I bought the entire series a few months ago on a whim when Amazon ran a wild deal on it, but haven’t gotten around to watching it. This week, though, I finally started, watching an episode when I can, usually once a day. I’m going to write a sort of Bailey Watches column for it, probably one post per disc (so, like, every five episodes), so look for that.

But the idea of marathoning a television show has given me pause lately. This is definitely not the first time I’ve done a marathon for a show–I mean, why else does Instant Netflix exist?–but it’s the first time I’ve slowed down enough to consider the ramifications.

We live in an age where television is meant to be discussed, not just watched and discarded, and the instant gratification of a marathon robs the viewer of that experience. It’s nice to only have to wait hours instead of weeks (or years) for plot arc payoff, but at the same time, the fan experience is missing somewhat.

I’m going to use Lost for this example because I think it has one of the most involved fan experiences of the last decade. I started watching Lost at the end of the second season, but anyone in my life can tell you that I spent an inordinate amount of time after that perusing message boards and theorizing for hours on end. But what’s important to note here is that I wasn’t alone–many conversations were had between myself and all of my friends about what was happening on the show. We were all enthralled, desperate to know what would happen next, and  many times the payoff was years in the making–but we considered it completely worth it.

Fast forward to anytime after the show ended, when friends would watch the entire series for the first time in a matter of weeks and text me updates as they watched. Not that I had any resentment in my heart toward them, but at the same time, I was sad that they didn’t get to experience the process that was watching Lost. When the show was still on the air, it was all most people could talk about. Anywhere you went, people were talking theories. But when the show is all on Instant Netflix and you can just zoom through it, you aren’t forced to stop and spend several months wondering about who Tom Friendly really is or decrying Michael for being the worst or wondering what schemes Locke and Ben would come up with next or what was even going on with the Smoke Monster. You just knew, in a matter of days.

I’m also watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Friday Night Lights right now (talk about a juxtaposition of high school settings), both shows that have a massive cult following. They were just shows I never happened to get into, but now I wish I would have. I can tell from the way people talk about them that they were really something to experience during their respective heydays. Yes, FNL gives me a lot of feelings (especially since I grew up in football culture), but I know that if I had to wait it out, I would be theorizing just as hard about the show’s strategy as I did about any other show I watch. And then you have Buffy, the show that was partially responsible for changing the face of supernatural television, and every day I want to kick myself for missing out on it when it aired.

There is no definitive right-or-wrong decision coming at the end of this post. There is no right or wrong way to watch a television show, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. I suppose I prefer watching a show during its run to marathoning it once it’s ended, just because I’m (clearly) into the discussion and fan experience. But at the same time, I watch at least three shows per weeknight during the regular season, and there’s no way I could ever really watch everything I want to (and I don’t have a DVR, so). In the end, there are shows I have to watch marathon style when I get the chance, and there are shows I marathon retroactively for any reason, but generally because I just didn’t know about them when they aired.

I will say, though, that I do think you’re missing out on a large chunk of the viewing experience if you watch in a vacuum and don’t look into fan interaction. I use Tumblr almost exclusively for this purpose–if you’re looking for your fandom, I guarantee you it’s on Tumblr in a bigger and better way than you could ever imagine. The Internet is this magnificent tool we have to enhance our daily experiences, and with television growing into a medium that demands discussion, there’s no reason not to use it.

How do you prefer to watch shows? Are you a fan of discussion, or do you like to make your own decisions regarding your theories?

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About Bailey

I'm a writer and a feminist. I read a lot of books and I watch a lot of television.

One Response to “Watching in a Vacuum: The Marathon Experience”

  1. Liked your post. I have gone either way with marathon viewing and week to week with discussions online. It depends on when I start watching a show. I counted over 20 series that I follow on broadcast during the last calendar year. I can barely keep up with 3 DVR’s. I too have recently marathon viewed FNL with mixed emotions. I am not of the football culture and am not a sports fan at all but thought I would check it out. I enjoyed the 1st season the most and it was downhill from there. With DVD’s and Netflix streaming, i don’t get too fussed about missing out if a show is good. I can usually catch up over the summer and then I decide if I will add it to my weekly line-up. I call that jumping from tier 2 to tier 1 in priority TV. Likewise, if a show starts to go south, I am quick to bail and have never regretted it. If friends who watch say it is worth going back to a show, I may check it out on DVD later. But usually something else has filled the void and i rarely go back.

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