Mad Men: A box-set binge can't beat watching week-on-week
Series such as Mad Men and The Bridge have brought back the pleasure of waiting for the next episode, says Benji Wilson.
The way we consume television is changing: personal video recorders and Sky+ boxes have made recording an entire TV series as easy as burning toast. DVD box sets are now the standard unit of series currency. On-demand viewing provides you with everything you could ever want at warp speed.
It has all meant that much television these days is consumed in binges. If you haven’t succumbed yourself, you will almost certainly know someone who has sat down with a box set and only come up for air several days later, proclaiming themselves addicted yet blithely content, like a woozy hippie.
The American conspiracy thriller 24 with Kiefer Sutherland has a lot to answer for in this regard – it ran with a real-time ticking clock, the inference being that you simply couldn’t afford to miss a second or the terrorists might foil Jack Bauer and destroy all civilisation while you were in the kitchen making a cup of tea.
The telling point is that 24 was set to be cancelled after one series in early 2002 – until the DVD box set went on sale. Suddenly the producers realised that people liked to watch a show in hyper-adrenal marathons more than in weekly doses. This coincided with the widespread uptake of the TiVo, the dominant personal video recorder in the US, which meant that in subsequent series people could record an entire 22-episode run and watch it in one hit, skipping the ads. Buoyed by this new model, 24 ran for nine years of frenetic brinkmanship.
Programme makers both in the US and here have responded to this change in viewing habits by making series TV that is the equivalent of fast food: a quick sugary hit designed first and foremost to make you want more. Some realised that if the aim is to propel viewers from one episode to the next, then the cliffhanger is everything. The Americans perfected it with 24, but our own Spooks was every bit as irresistible, and ran for even longer. Others worked out that you could spindle whole series around mysteries so impenetrable that viewers would power through a box set just to find the answers. In the case of shows such as Lost, another monster hit, they realised that the answers could be strung out across several box sets, or not given at all (in some cases because the writers didn’t know what the answers were when they invented the mysteries).
But as British broadcasters have started to screen programmes just days, and sometimes hours, after the Americans, a strange thing has happened – increasingly there is no box set to watch, no future episode to demand online. As a result, the pleasure of having to wait a week for another instalment has returned. For many of us it never went away.
Mad Men, which has just finished its latest run on Sky Atlantic, is a character-driven series that will not be rushed, and it is all the better for it. I had forgotten how nice it can be to wait. It forces you to weigh up what happened in the previous episode and ponder what might happen in the next. It lends itself to contemplation at the speed of real life.
In the case of the recent spate of Scandinavian dramas like The Killing and The Bridge, the fact they don’t become available as box sets until the TV run is done means we have again been shown the delights of a thriller delivered in chapters. The wait to learn “whodunit” may be unbearable, but as you have no option, the compound rewards of deferred gratification kick in. This, of course, was the function of Dickens’s serial fiction: keep ’em guessing, and they’ll come back for more.
It would be a shame if the rise of box-set, view-on-demand, all-you-can-eat television meant that the pleasure of a series consumed in measured portions was to vanish. In many ways, cultural sustenance is just the same as any other nutrition – the binge-hit may give intense enjoyment for a short while, but taking more time to chew things over is a whole lot better for you.