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The February debut of Netflix series “House of Cards” has critics in a frenzy—but not over anything that actually happens on the show. The topic of discussion is instead its method of distribution. The company released all 13 of the series’ episodes on the same day, making it in some ways resemble a long movie more than a traditional television show.
I would like to put on my optimistic hat for a moment and come out in support of the binge release with a dream of what could happen in a future Netflix world. Yes, it’s possible that the shift will move the medium toward film in problematic ways. Unlike traditional networks and premium cable channels, Netflix doesn’t prescribe the number and length of a TV season’s episodes. Critic Jaime Weinman predicts an unavoidable trim down: writers free from restriction will condense what was once a 20-hour season into a three- or four-hour chunk. But while this shift is technically possible, I’d argue it’s far from inevitable. Could the events in the twenty-hour first season of “The West Wing” happen over the course of three? Probably. But would I (and so many others) have fallen in love with Josh Lyman, one of its characters, in just that small amount of time? Probably not. Likewise, Walter White of “Breaking Bad” wouldn’t so devastate viewers with his moral decay if we’d only known him as an upright citizen for the underside of an hour. Length is an integral part of the television experience. It allows viewers to get to know a world intimately and to gain familiarity with its characters to the point when they feel like real people.
The perks of long-term commitment to a work are familiar to us from outside the realm of visual storytelling; for this reason I turn not to film as a comparative model for television’s future, but instead to the novel. My hope is that future television series will take on the best parts of a great book. They’ll require hours of investment, richly portray worlds, and excel in slowly simmering character explorations. They’ll have complex arcs, interweave subplots, and include details outside of those required for the most economic telling of a story. They’ll proceed in distinct sections released together for a viewer to consume at her own chosen pace. It’s telling that “House of Cards” labels each installment not with traditional titles, but instead just as Chapters 1-13.
In one of the many fascinating pieces of criticism analyzing potential changes to televise, Todd VanDerWerff’s for The A.V. Club, VanDerWerff warns the binge release format could lessen series’ quality. In viewers’ rush to the next installment, they may potentially overlook flaws on the episodic level. But the book model could actually engineer the reverse effect. Much of a novel’s value comes from analysis after a first reading. Readers look back on the product as a whole and notice important ways in which disparate elements connect: a line of dialogue in chapter two takes on a different significance in light of a later development; a collection of imagery suggests a different reading than does the novel’s overt plotline. If producers have control over entire television seasons, they may be able to achieve this same level of artistry. This will in turn encourage a more formal relationship between viewer and product. Television won’t be about casually tuning in for a free hour on Sunday night. It will be about watching, repeating, and savoring. It will be about slow care and analysis.
Netflix has already created an accessible television canon by releasing complete previously aired series. Future viewers will come to new shows with understandings of their historical context and will knowingly appreciate these shows’ innovations. The site is bringing changes, but they won’t end television’s golden age. Rather, they’ll solidify the medium’s place in our culture as a form of serious art.
—Columnist Lily F. Karlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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