Let’s start by ticking off a few things that three of the past year’s most popular shows — The Mandalorian, WandaVision, and Ted Lasso — have in common:
- They are all streaming shows created for platforms that did not exist as recently as two years ago
- They all feature a main character with superpowers, provided you consider Ted’s “being really nice a lot” personality to be a power equal to Baby Yoda and Wanda manipulating space and time with their minds, which I do (he’s a sweet man)
- They are all based on previously existing intellectual property, provided you consider a short series of commercials for soccer to be equal to decades of Star Wars movies and the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is, I suppose, almost as much of a reach as a show based on a series of commercials for soccer becoming a beloved cultural phenomenon, but still
There’s one more thing they have in common, too, and it’s one that I think goes a long way toward explaining why all three captured the audience’s interest in the way they did: All three shows went with a weekly release schedule.
Do I think these shows would have been massively popular if they had dumped all their episodes at once on their premiere date, Netflix-style? I mean, yeah, probably. Especially WandaVision and The Mandalorian, thanks to the massive franchises resting underneath them as a foundation. And Ted Lasso did benefit from its mini-dump premiere strategy of dropping the first three episodes together before switching to weekly, so there’s some gray area here. But the main thing I think we should take away from all of this is that the weekly release schedule is just more fun.
It’s more fun in almost every way, too. I love all the next-day blogs about these shows. I love the longer-tail discussions about where they’re heading or could be heading. I love the damn memes that pop up and give the show a weird second life on social media as a shorthand conversation piece. I even, sometimes, begrudgingly, love the increasingly kooky theorizing that takes place on your nerdier forums and publications, if only for their passion. I’ll roll my eyes and sigh and maybe even poke fun at some of the more “detective who is in too deep and has created a massive conspiracy board on the wall in his kitchen, with pictures and printouts connected by pieces of red string” ones, but it’s still kind of cool to see people all get excited about the same thing. And the Kathryn Hahn winking meme might live forever. That’s pretty cool.
I think that kind of conversation is what I miss most when a show dumps its episodes all at once. It becomes impossible to talk about it in any sort of organized way. Everyone is on a different episode and some people finished everything the first weekend and some people keep saying they “will get to it” but the lift of ten episodes feels too daunting for them to get into when there’s an expectation to get to the end as fast as possible. It makes finishing a season of a show — or an entire show — feel like an accomplishment instead of a journey. Shows are good. Episodes are good. Stopping to think about what you saw and talking about it with other people who just saw the same thing is good. We should do more good things.
Some of this opinion is, I admit, a function of my job. It is much harder to write about shows in the binge era. There are times I’ll have the screeners for a whole season and finish them before the show premieres and I really want to talk with people about something that happens in, like, the sixth episode, but a) it’s impossible to know when everyone has gotten to that point, and b) the binge model incentivizes flying through shows in a way that can cause fun little moments to get swallowed up by larger multi-episode arcs. I watched and enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit a few months ago but I remember very little of it. Boyd Crowder said his plan to leave crime and go legit involved opening a Dairy Queen franchise in an episode of Justified that aired almost 10 years ago and I think about it constantly. The 400 times I mentioned it between that episode and the next one probably had something to do with that. I think — hope — that all this comes across as a love of that water cooler conversation and not as me whining about a job where I watch and write about television.
There’s another aspect to all of this that touches on the These Troubling Times of it all, but I think it holds up as a larger point: Binge-watching is often, by nature, an isolating experience. You’re watching the shows by yourself, at your own pace, sometimes unhealthily as you click “Next episode” at 1:45 AM because you NEED TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS even though you have to be awake in five hours. And then when you finish, you have to wait for your friends to finish to talk about it, which could take weeks, by which point you’re ready to talk about another show. While this can be annoying in any circumstance, it’s especially a bummer now, when we’re all isolated on a much larger and sadder level, cut off from a lot of human interaction by a pandemic that has lasted a full year. That’s one of the things that made The Mandalorian and WandaVision such a blast: It gave people something to talk about that wasn’t a huge bummer. It gave people something fun to discuss during the week and, yeah, get a little weird about and too invested in it. That’s cool. It’s fun. The binge model works for catching up on shows you missed or rewatching your favorites, but it sucks some of the long-term joy out of experiencing cool new things. I think we’re far enough into this experiment to see that on some level.
So, with that in mind, let’s all take two lessons from the success of The Mandalorian, WandaVision, and Ted Lasso:
- A weekly release can increase chatter and interest in a quality show by giving people time to think about it on a deeper level and/or highlight cool moments from it, both of which are good
- More shows should feature a cute little alien or a mustachioed sweetheart or Kathryn Hahn, and all three if possible
I am very serious about both of these.