Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Screen Bingeing

When I was growing up television was dominated by weekly shows.  We all looked forward to our favourite comedy, drama, variety (Ed Sullivan) and western shows.  Popular movies would be on tv a year or so after they had played in the theatre.  Late shows were older movies.  Drive-ins were common with my parents taking me and my siblings to them.  Although hour long dramas were common enough, they didn't have the status later claimed by made for tv movies.  You could say the goal of tv shows was to be continuous; to find the formula that stimulated habit forming viewing.

It all boils down to the fact that we humans love stories.  Dramatic tension, humorous relief.  Sex, violence, mystery, romance.  Living vicariously.

My favourite form was the mini series, often based on a lengthy book.   "Roots" was a weekly show that got the attention of millions of North Americans painting a picture of black heritage that was largely unknown. I was also  a fan of James A Michener having read most of his books and watched  many of the adaptations of his lengthy multi generational stories.

 "Rich Man, Poor Man" was another I remember with pleasure.  There is always a trade off between doing something in depth or getting to the point quickly.  My job made it difficult to watch prime time tv, but as the mini series had a limited run I tried to make an exception.

I like the BBC approach.  Choosing a book or series of books and instead of rushing production they opted for fewer shows with more emphasis on quality.  One example for me was "The Jewell in the Crown."  The "Wallander" series has only been three shows per year, but all excellent.  Now many of these shows are available in DVD format and/or streaming.

At one point copying tv shows became a solution.  I remember reading a bit about the legal battles as copyright holders were concerned it would cheapen their products and allow viewers to bypass commercials.  The first rationale to justify it was that it allowed people with inconvenient schedules to see movies and tv shows at a more convenient time and termed this practice time shifting.   But many people did in fact  build a  library of films for those times when the options were relatively boring and loaned them out to friends. In fact often they would watch one show while taping another.

As you get older you get used to some things, but the younger generation is constantly learning new technology that adds to enjoyment.  Our two kids gave us a big flat screen tv and a Netflix subscription.   Many, maybe too many, hours of enjoyment have resulted.  I realize that electronic entertainment is more portable than ever.

Netflix made it possible to watch a whole series in quick succession.  Streaming is still a new concept for me, but the technology is having an effect on millions of us.  Missing an episode because of work or family obligations was occasionally annoying and waiting for the next episode frustrating for many.  Binging was now possible and desirable because many of your friends and acquaintances had already seen the series and maybe there was still more episodes to watch.   Many were movies and tv series that had already appeared in America or Europe and some were created for the network.

Breaking Bad" was the first series for us and we had to catch up to a lot of friends and co-workers.  We were hooked.  I could not imagine being caught up in the life of drug dealers in a mid sized  New Mexico town and all the dramatic twists and turns, but it held a grip on us.

Soon after that I heard about "Suits" and before long we were following the exploits of a fraudulent young lawyer and those surrounding him.  Other series that were usually recommended included
"The Killing" set in perpetually rainy Seattle;  "Homeland" about a returning prisoner of war who had been converted to extremist Islam.   "The Good Wife" about the wife of a politician disgraced with a sex scandal.  "House of Cards" got as much attention as "Breaking Bad" and painted a picture of contemporary corruption at the White House level  "The Bridge," set between Malmo, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark was the first sub-titled series and I learned that the two lead characters, one Swede and one Dane only spoke their native language to each other and were well understood.  Three with a British tinge got our attention  "Wallander," "Scott and Bailey,"and  "Last Tango in Halifax"

The streaming service prepped us for more binge watching using DVDs.  Our daughter loaned us a DVD set of "Orphan Black" which was way-out in left field for us, but we soon got hooked and will try to catch the new season on tv.  Borrowing from the library meant even more binging; a whole season compressed into one week.  We saw a season or two of "Downton Abbey" before doing the more casual pace of the tv program.  We got in the habit of watching an episode starting with dinner which varied a little in time and often watched an extra one.

Just as television and DVD's have proved to be markets for movies, the streaming networks are markets for television and movies.  We are swimming in streams of media choices.  Recently I wanted to watch "Book of Negroes" based on a book by Lawrence Hill.  I had actually had a chat with the author who admitted that he was working on the tv script to become a mini series.  I had loved the book (prompted by Canada Reads) years ago, but work and other conflicts meant I could only see parts of it--hopefully it will either be streamed or come out in a DVD format so I can watch it all in sequence.

What is the right length for a story?  It can get boring seeing the same characters with similar plots so variety is a factor. You would like to think you are selective, but part of the process is listening to what your friends and co-workers liked and reading or listening to trusted reviewers.   And let's face it we can all become addicted to the idea of finding an engrossing series.  What would you suggest should be binged on?

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