Sunday, September 15, 2013

What did you binge on last night?

Newspaper columns, which tend to be written by middle aged and profoundly middle class columnists, have a habit of being filled with self-pitying pieces about what it is to be middle aged and middle class.

Thus, if you read such class stalwarts as The Times, the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian you will regularly encounter problems such as Waitrose running out of humous, the inconvenience of getting vaccinated for holidays in remote parts of Asia, and why something should be done about car parking in Clerkenwell. Yada, and, if I may, yada.

This weekend, The Times actually ran a feature about being boring.

When the Pet Shop Boys wrote a song about it, they were being ironic. The Times, though, devoted a lengthy piece on how you know you've become boring when you start discussing with your partner gardening, optimal driving routes to visit relatives, the school area postcode system and plot developments in American drama series.

The Telegraph's Judith Woods even wrote an extensive piece on the role of TV box sets in holding together a marriage, arguing that lounging around on the couch for days on end is the new "country walks and meals out". I'm not so sure.

What is true is that television viewing has been turned upside down, inside out, rethought, remade and forced to reconsider itself all over again. Whereas not so long ago, the advertising sales departments of American television networks came up with the notion of "appointment TV" - that you would build your entire Thursday evening around The West Wing coming on at 9pm, with hit sitcoms building up to it, and the 10pm news and the flagship nightly chat show building off it - now, thanks to box sets, online downloads and IPTV, scheduling is fast turning into a crapshoot.

In Britain, the fact that American dramas should, now, even be regarded as routine conversation pieces is equally as significant. With, perhaps, the exception of Dallas in the 1980s, American shows have rarely been cited as of such cultural importance that they should equal schools and gardening as dinner discussion. Rarely, as a teenager, do I recall meals animated by conversations about whether the A-Team will ever cure BA Baracus of his fear of flying, or if Hill Street Blues' Norman Buntz should get a spinoff series (which I believe he did).

In these dark days of economic downturn and, as the excruciating phrase goes, "staying in is the new going out" (strange, I never thought of staying in as fashion statement, quite the reverse), we are comforting ourselves with the technology to indulge.

We won't just watch an episode of Homeland and spent seven days wondering whether Saul will, once more, dig Carrie out of her latest career blunder, we'll mainline four episodes in a row. This is the television equivalent of finishing off an entire tube of Pringles in one setting. Which often goes hand in hand with the box set binge.

Much of this has, I have to say, to do with the quality on offer. Now I know, as the son of a former BBC technician and therefore a BBC loyalist (take that, Daily Mail...!) I should uphold British television for being a world leader. And it is. But ever since the American cable network HBO made Band Of Brothers (starring Homeland's old Etonian, and very English, Damian Lewis in the D-Day epic), and The Sopranos ("it's almost Shakespearian" - everyone), the bar has been set impeccably high for long-form television drama.

The Wire (starring Brits Idris Elba and Dominic West, an Eton contemporary of Damian Lewis), came along to challenge The Sopranos' critical acclaim further. More recently, American cable has produced Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Dexter and many more shows of a quality that could be argued now eclipses that of cinema, especially seeing as Hollywood seems to be obsessed only with moneyspinning but pointless remakes and superhero franchises.

British television, I'm required to point out, isn't without its comparative quality: anything with David Tennant in it tends to be excellent, be it Broadchurch or his mesmerising run in Doctor Who which, despite being sci-fi and therefore a bit soppy, contained some of the best acting and writing in a primetime family show for decades.

What has changed is risk. Some years ago, a hint of buttock in a shower scene in NYPD Blue (then the high watermark for quality drama) resulted in advertisers on TV stations in the American Bible Belt pulling out, followed by the stations themselves disenfranchising themselves from their host network. American television really couldn't say boo to a goose.

Cable has changed that, and with it, has brought a sumptuous quality of richness. Today, the high mantle has been deservedly taken by Breaking Bad. If, a few years ago, you'd have pitched me a TV show about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes New Mexico's methamphetamine kingpin in order to pay for his chemotherapy, I would have accused you of taking too much methamphetamine.

But herein lies the addictive nature of good television writing - and why we are compelled to binge on it: I downloaded the first season of Breaking Bad out of curiosity. Like a good novel, it was slow to heat up. Five and a half seasons in, I recognise what a brilliant arc Vince Gilligan's show has taken, the balance between Walter White's Jekyll and Heisenberg's Hyde gradually shifting, as the mild-mannered teacher descends into compelling menace.

These shows, then, are the good book you can't put down. Which may explain how we consume them. Box sets are hardly new, and nor is high quality drama, but, says actor Kevin Spacey, "The audience wants control. They want freedom."

Spacey's recent US remake of the seminal BBC political satire House Of Cards has challenged the notion of television scheduling still further, being made for and distributed by Netflix, a company previously best known for pioneering DVD rentals by mail order, and which is positioning itself as an 'over the top' online content provider.

Spacey's House Of Cards demonstrated how far US television has walked in and almost taken over cinema's ground, being directed by David Fincher. The real revolution, however, was that all 13 episodes of the series were released at once, rather than in weekly instalments, catering fully to the box-set binger.

"If they want to binge, then we should let them binge," Spacey recently told the Edinburgh Television Festival in his MacTaggart Lecture, the first actor ever to give the prestigious speech. Online distribution of series like his was, he said, proof that the TV industry could learn "the lesson that the music industry didn't learn". "Give people what they want, when they want it, in the form they want it in, at a reasonable price, and they'll more likely pay for it rather than steal it."

Spacey also noted that the Internet's facilitation of mega consumption challenged the idea that television damages intellect: "For years, particularly with the advent of the Internet, people have been griping about lessening attention spans. But if someone can watch an entire season of a TV series in one day, doesn't that show an incredible attention span? When the story is good enough, people can watch something three times the length of an opera."

"The audience has spoken," he added. "They want stories. They're dying for them. And they will talk about it, binge on it, carry it with them on the bus and to the hairdresser, force it on their friends, tweet, blog, Facebook… and God knows what else."

Ricky Gervais recently weighed in this too, with his edgy sitcom Derek being signed up by Netflix: "TV habits have been changing drastically over the last 10 years and it’s been exponential in the last five years," Gervais told NBC's Today show.

"There’s a new generation of 12-to-15-year-olds who don’t even know what we mean when we say we used to sit down at 9 o’clock as a family to watch a show. 'Why would you sit down at nine? I’ll watch it on my way to school.'

At this point, and almost at the end of this post, I must acknowledge that many people - actually, probably most - don't have the ability to spend hours at a time lounging around in their pyjamas watching an entire season of Family Guy in one go, because - you know - of things like children and work commitments. But given that DVD and Blu-ray box sets are just about the only thing keeping HMV stores alive these days, the box set binge is no phenomenon restricted to the lazy and immobile.

And, as pretentious as it sounds, there's a very strong case to be made that, with the quality of product on offer, spending an entire Sunday afternoon and evening intravenously consuming The Sopranos for only the 100th time in the 14 years since they made their debut, you are indulging in high art and one of the most significant evolutions of popular culture in a generation.

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