I’ve been wondering what it is that makes a TV show so compelling that I will sit in a dark room and watch episode after episode for hours? There are many fine shows out there that have fantastic scripts, great actors, and high production values, and yet I would never watch more than one episode at a sitting. So I’ve been going over the shows that are more like addictions for me than diversions, trying to pinpoint their commonalities.
Of course, everyone’s bingeable list is subjective and everyone’s criteria will be individualized. For example, for all the well deserved hoopla that Breaking Bad received, so far it hasn’t moved into my bingeable category even though it fits several of my criteria, including serialized drama, unpredictability, and nail-biting action. I know, however, that many have happily binged on this series and its kin. As I said, the list is purely subjective. The ones on my list are my particular addictions. And sometimes the binge just hasn't occurred yet.
Some of the shows I have binged on are high quality, top-of-the-line, critically acclaimed television. Others might be low budget studio afterthoughts. And yet something in each of them pulled me into the story and wouldn’t let go.
So here is a partial list of the shows that have conquered my heart over the years:
24 -- This cardiac-arrest-inducing series is the one that got me hooked on binging. This was back in the day when you’d go to the video store and rent disks with about four shows per disk. Oh, the horror when you went to the 24 shelf and all the copies of one set were checked out. Talk about cold turkey.
Gilmore Girls -- Part of the appeal of this series for me is that I watched it with my daughter. We bought the entire series and one New Year’s Eve, my kid, three of her closest friends and I marathon watched it for the entire night and into the next day. To this day, we can recite whole episodes.
Boston Legal -- Boston Legal was a procedural, so it didn’t quite fit the norm of my list, but the combination of James Spader and William Shatner was like a speedball -- truly addictive.
Buffy, the Vampire Slayer -- I never watched Buffy back when it was on the air. When I began watching it on Netflix, however, I had to set limits on myself so I’d actually go to work and do the life things I was supposed to do to keep the electricity on. I blew through five seasons in a year.
Firefly -- The great thing about Firefly is I can binge on it over and over. Like so many of its fans, I mourn the fact it died in its infancy.
Doll House -- While we’re on the Joss Whedon track, this may not have been the greatest show on television, but the strange world it created creeps into the psyche after a few episodes, digs in its hooks and hangs on till the surreal end.
Downton Abby -- The theme song alone sends me into a hypnotic state. “More,” the voice in my brain drones, at the end of every episode.
MI-6 -- Like 24, this British series had hot guys, smart women and non-stop action. Even though the writers notoriously killed off main characters, I couldn’t stop watching.
The West Wing -- Aaron Sorkin is God. I wish I would have watched this show when I was a young woman. I might have had an entirely different career path. I know I would have gotten some useful life tools by watching C.J. Cregg deal with problems both small and gi-normous with astounding grace and wit.
Glee -- Totally guilty pleasure. The music, the teenage angst, the earnest and charming Will Shuester, the conniving and delightfully cruel Sue Sylvester, and so much more. I’ll admit I only binged on the first couple of seasons and that may have been enough. Someday I’ll explore further.
Parenthood -- I absolutely love this show and want that family. And there’s the bonus of Lauren Graham as another quirky mom. If I ever met her in person I would hope we could split a bottle of wine and laugh about everything. She seems like that type of gal.
The Good Wife -- Contrary to most of the other shows, what I most like about The Good Wife is the procedural part rather than the serialized aspect. The legal skirmishes that Alicia and her cronies get into are absolutely fascinating. I love the way these episodes reveal our justice and political systems in a manner that entertains us, frustrates us, and yet somehow rings true.
Mad Men -- What more is there to say about this masterpiece? Except that this violates another of my rules, which is that I almost always know from the first five minutes whether a show will be bingeable. In this case, I didn’t get hooked the first time I watched the show. But once I “got” it, there was no turning back.
Turn: Washington’s Spies -- An addiction you can feel good about because you’re learning history while you binge. What an exciting story.
And let’s not forget the ultimate weekend binge: Orange is the New Black. Once you start watching, better just call out for pizza. Interestingly, I have not binged on season three. I still love it but it doesn’t quite have the drive that the first two seasons had.
There are other shows that I’ve loved and binged on until I got sucked into something else when there was a break between seasons: including Once, Grey’s Anatomy, Homeland, How to Get Away with Murder, The Black List, Masters of Sex, and a few others. But I’m sure I will go back to these shows when there’s a lull in my watching activity and get hooked all over again.
This summer I stumbled across Callie Khouri’s Nashville. If I’d know she was the creator I probably would have succumbed earlier, but I’m glad I didn’t because there were three whole seasons to wallow in before I got caught up. Now I am trying to save up episodes of Season Four so I can binge, but I haven’t found the will power. I actually watch the shows as they come out week by week. This show is truly crack for me. It fits every one of my criteria and then some! And the music -- I didn’t even like country music till I started watching this show. Now, I’m a convert.
After I was all caught up on Nashville, I turned to something completely different, an obscure Canadian sci-fi comic book spinoff called Dark Matter, and now I’m chomping at the bit for Season Two, which won’t come out till 2016. Fortunately, a couple of nights ago I found The Last Kingdom.
So what are the hooks that keep me from pushing the stop button when I get that message: “Next episode in 12 seconds....”?
1. Serialized elements. Some of the shows I binge on are procedurals with serialized elements. Others, like Nashville and OITNB, are serials with procedural elements (more like chapters in a good novel). One show leads directly into the next. If a show is truly bingeable, you will need to know what happens next so badly you’re willing to lose sleep to find out. That’s where great cliff hangers (i.e. OITNB Season One) come in.
2. A strong, interesting female character or characters. Women who kick ass thrill me. In Dark Matter, the lead female character is a manufactured biological being (as opposed to an android) who can kill five or six bad guys in the blink of an eye. And she’s smart. Then there’s Nashville’s Rayna James played by the gorgeous Connie Britton, the sexiest and most sympathetic mother figure in all television, who, as nice as she is, never gives up an inch of her power.
3, It doesn’t hurt to have great-looking, moody guys in the show either. I’ll admit it. Part of the addiction is the crush you get on the characters whether they’re Don Draper, Deacon Claybourne or Alan Short. It’s probably why I’ll eventually get hooked on Sons of Anarchy -- that and the whole Shakespeare thing. (I’ve only watched the pilot but I can see bingeable likelihood all over the place.) And when Alexander Dreymon pops out of the water as the adult Uhtred of Bebbanburg in The Last Kingdom, there can’t be a straight woman alive whose knees won’t quake. Of course, straight guys will have their own crushes on the many gorgeous women who populate these shows.
4. Unpredictability without losing believability. This is a fine line. Sometimes I’ll watch a new show and it’s so formulaic I just want to beg the writers to hide the strings. Of course, formulas are what Hollywood lives and dies for so it’s not easy to find a show that meets this criterion.
5. Characters who are multi-dimensional. Deacon Claybourne in Nashville is the perfect example. He does a few things that are pure asshole. But mostly he’s a good-hearted, talented, good old boy whom women young and not so young want to bed. Whereas, Jeff Fordham, another character in Nashville, is the quintessential selfish, arrogant antagonist, but when he falls in love with Layla Grant and actually takes care of her, you find yourself devastated when something terrible happens to him.
6. A love element. My most serious binging of The Good Wife happened when Alicia and Will were having their affair. The writers can string viewers along for years when we’re waiting to see if two people will ever get together.
7. A family feel. The shows I binge on are about communities of characters. (Speaking of communities, when I need a lighter bingeable show, Community, Big Bang Theory, and Friends top my list.) They people your mind. And shows with a range of ages are generally more interesting than those targeted to one age group. Even Buffy had the handsome and distinguished Giles to balance out all that teenage hormonal frenzy. Parenthood mined the generations beautifully by delving into the stories of the grandparents, the siblings, and the grandchildren almost equally.
8. Characters I can love. I’m not into the anti-heroes as much as I am a deeply flawed character with good intentions. For example, Juliette Barnes in Nashville is an egotistical, self-destructive, mean-spirited prima donna, but she has moments of genuine humanity and I root for her in spite of her mistakes. But I’m probably the only television aficionado in the world who didn’t get hooked on The Sopranos. I know, I know. GREAT television, fabulous writing, etc. But I’m not that interested in the mob. Maybe it’s because I’ve run across a few of those people back in the day and they creep me the fuck out. Then again, maybe I didn’t give it enough of a chance. I mean, I did love Good Fellas. Maybe it’s different because in television you’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people, and with a movie, it’s just a couple of hours. It’s easier for me to take dark, violent subject matter in a film or a book than it is in television. (I know that for many bingers, Game of Thrones is the ultimate bingeable television experience, but it’s just too dark for me. I was completely enthralled by the book, so it isn’t the darkness per se as much as it’s the visual depiction of the darkness.)
So those are the qualities that I require for bingeability. But there’s something else -- a je ne sais quoi. I recently watched a pilot episode that met every single one of these criteria and yet I wasn’t hooked. Whatever that intangible quality is, that show didn’t have it. It could just be chemistry. You feel a chemistry for some characters and the worlds they inhabit and not for others.
Bingeable shows are not necessarily better than other shows, but they seep into your psyche. The theme song runs through your head during the day. You think about the characters, pondering their motivations, as if they were real people. You mull over their mistakes and analyze their problems. And when the series ends, you wonder what to do with yourself. Perhaps you should go out and get a life. But then one night as you’re idly perusing your Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and Amazon libraries, you stumble across a show that sparks your curiosity. Jane the Virgin, maybe, and magically the void begins to fill. Pretty soon you find you’ve jumped on the horse and can’t get off till the end of the ride.