Long before he brought The Avengers to life on the silver screen, Joss Whedon was a master of the small screen. With Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog under his belt, Whedon’s work achieved cult status, with devotees still talking about his shows to this day.
Most of Whedon’s shows thrive on monster or plots-of-the-week format, with teases setting up an overarching narrative that all tie together by the season finale. It works better when you’ve been watching from day one, but you could easily jump into one of his shows in the middle of a season and still have a clue as to what’s going on. A number of shows today don’t follow that format. They’re plotted out like movies, with each episode moving the plot forward a little more. With a show like Stranger Things or Daredevil, if you haven’t been watching since Episode One, you’ll be out of place.
While being interviewed by THR to celebrate Buffy’s 20th anniversary, Whedon was asked about his thoughts on the way we consume TV now that Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have helped cultivate a culture of binge watching. These platforms have created an “all at once” culture that is common for creators, but does it appeal to Whedon?
“I would not want to do it. I would want people to come back every week and have the experience of watching something at the same time. We released Doctor Horrible in three acts. We did that, in part, because I grew up watching miniseries like Lonesome Dove. I loved event television. And as it was falling by the wayside, I thought, ‘Let’s do it on the internet!’ Over the course of that week, the conversation about the show changed and changed. That was exciting to watch. Obviously Netflix is turning out a ton of extraordinary stuff. And if they came to me and said, ‘Here’s all the money! Do the thing you love!’ I’d say, ‘You could release it however you want. Bye.’ But my preference is more old-school. Anything we can grab on to that makes something specific, a specific episode, it’s useful for the audience. And it’s useful for the writers, too. ‘This is what we’re talking about this week!’ For you to have six, 10, 13 hours and not have a moment for people to breath and take away what we’ve done … to just go, “Oh, this is just part seven of 10,” it makes it amorphous emotionally. And I worry about that in our culture — the all-access all the time. Having said that, if that’s how people want it, I’d still work just as hard. I’ll adapt.”
He was then asked about his thoughts on binge watching:
“The more we make things granular and less complete, the more it becomes lifestyle instead of experience. It becomes ambient. It loses its power, and we lose something with it. We lose our understanding of narrative. Which is what we come to television for. We come to see the resolve. I’m fond of referencing it, but it’s ‘Angela Lansbury finds the murderer.’ It’s becoming a little harder to hold on to that. Binge-watching, god knows I’ve done it, it’s exhausting — but it can be delightful. It’s not the devil. But I worry about it. It’s part of a greater whole.”
His comments on the event series format being a dying breed seem to be misplaced. There has never been quite as good a time to look for TV events and limited series. From HBO’s The Night Of and The Young Pope to Ryan Murphy’s sprawling empire of anthologies American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Feud, it seems every week brings a new television event. While these events are marketed as being binge-able and addicting, most networks still air them as weekly episodes. It’s a matter of getting hit by spoilers each week or watching them as they air so you can discuss the latest plot twists with co-workers and friends.
It seems as though Whedon’s biggest problem is not with binge watching or with TV events being a vanishing genre, but rather with Netflix or streaming services that provide all episodes at once. There, it’s a matter of racing to the finale to avoid spoilers on Twitter and Facebook, which can make binge watching feel less fun and more like a chore. What’s ironic about this is that now people binge watch Whedon’s shows, which are all on Netflix. His shows are now being consumed in the very way he doesn’t like.
Still, it will give Whedon’s devotees hope to know that he would consider turning out a new series on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Given how many TV and film auteurs are turning to these platforms to produce new shows, it might be only a matter of time before Whedon joins their numbers and produces a new, zany sci-fi series that might survive longer than one season. We can only wait and see.