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Netflix’s binge model is making shows like Black Mirror suffer

If reality shows are serialized — why aren’t all of them?

Aaron Paul in a spacesuit looking through a doorway with shock in a still from Black Mirror season 6 Photo: Nick Wall/Netflix

On Dec. 4, 2011, millions of viewers watched “The National Anthem,” the debut of Black Mirror and the one in which the prime minister is forced to have sex with a pig on live TV. When the episode ended, viewers had to sit with it. They debated the merits of the episode, what it was trying to say, and whether it said it effectively. For the week until “15 Million Merits” aired, people who were originally put off by the debut episode’s plot were given time to move past their initial knee-jerk reactions to think about the story beyond the surface level.

Season 6 of Black Mirror is out now, and was released all at once, as it has been since Netflix bought the show in 2015. When the viewers finish that first episode, all they’ll have to do is wait a few seconds for the next one to autoplay. If they want, they can finish the entire season in a single sitting, which is exactly what many viewers have been doing ever since the show moved to Netflix. It’s also a format that’s baked into Netflix’s scripted shows more broadly, to the detriment of building fandom around such shows.

Viewers are, of course, free to do what they want. But for a TV show where every episode is a self-contained story, designed specifically to try to spark a discussion, bingeing seems to be doing the show a disservice. Black Mirror doesn’t always hit, but it deserves a chance to try, and it doesn’t feel like its newer episodes have been properly given one.

It’s how “Smithereens,” a season 5 story contemplating what counts as a win when you’re fighting against a systemic problem far bigger than yourself, gets repeatedly dismissed as just a “phones bad” episode. It’s how “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too,” the story that uses its premise to explore the corporate exploitation of artists from three contrasting angles, gets summed up as just another uploaded consciousness narrative. When viewers had a full week to talk about individual episodes, their takeaways were more nuanced, having time to breathe and evolve.

Andrew Scott on the phone in a still from “Smithereens” a season 5 episode of Black Mirror Image: Netflix
The Ashley Too doll in the foreground with Ashley (Miley Cyrus) on a screen in the background Image: Netflix

It’s easy to imagine that, were future episodes given more space, their themes wouldn’t be flattened this severely in fandom discussions — even among the weaker installments. If “The National Anthem” aired during the Netflix years, would the episode have as many supporters among the fandom? Or would it be widely dismissed as nothing but shock value?

The constant demand for the next episode makes more sense when you look at a serialized show — but that still doesn’t mean Netflix’s binge model is ideal. Viewers might think they prefer having all the episodes of the new season in the palms of their hands, but the viewers watching weekly shows on other platforms sure seem to be having a better time.

Season 2 of Euphoria in particular was one of the most tweeted-about TV shows of the decade so far, and it’s impossible to imagine the show accomplishing that feat without the week’s wait between episodes. Euphoria might not be the greatest show in the world, but there was nothing more fun than the conversations within the fandom at the time. Rue’s devastating meltdown halfway through, the speculation around Lexi’s play, the absolute game-changer moment when Rue spilled the beans on Cassie’s affair with Nate — it was a thrilling experience, for reasons that had only half to do with the show itself. Like Succession or House of the Dragon have also been this past year, by season 2 Euphoria was no longer just a show; it was a vibrant community, full of life for two months straight, not just a couple of days.

Zendaya as Rue in Euphoria Photo: Eddy Chen/HBO
The giant Squid Games robot opens her eyes while facing a tree while a group of contestants are lined up in the background Image: Netflix

Meanwhile, outside of stray breakout hits like The Queen’s Gambit and Squid Game, Netflix’s strategy of releasing the full season at once all but ensures the show won’t be a meaningful part of the pop culture conversation for more than a week or two. Its most popular shows have their own subreddits and fan communities, but these fan bases are only really fully alive for about a week or so each year. Stranger Things season 4 managed to stay relevant longer than its preceding two seasons, but that was only because Netflix put in a break before the final two episodes.

It makes sense that such shows would have a shorter period of fan excitement or buzz. When shows release all episodes at once, it’s also extremely hard for fans to talk to each other without worrying about spoilers. To avoid spoilers, fans must watch as much of it as possible the day it comes out, or take their time and completely avoid social media. The only way to engage with the fandom for Netflix’s shows is to watch as much of it as possible the day it comes out, or take your time and completely avoid social media. It’s a release format that encourages breathlessness, that pushes viewers to think of their favorite shows as content to be consumed as quickly as possible, not art to be savored and reflected upon.

When there’s time for the whole fan base to react to an episode, to speculate on next week’s episode as a group, then there’s time for them to fully engage with it, to rewatch and rethink first impressions of any given episode. Black Mirror might be the most egregious example, but even non-anthology serialized TV is harmed by Netflix’s approach. Netflix clearly understands the value of non-binge models — it’s already moved toward it with several of its ongoing reality shows to great success (if not for the Netflix servers) — but it’s not letting fans of scripted TV enjoy that same sense of anticipation and spectacle. Why was Love Is Blind’s latest season released in easily manageable weekly batches, while Black Mirror gets its whole season dropped at once? Why shouldn’t a scripted show also be given the time for fans to appreciate its episodes on an individual basis? With nearly every other major streaming service embracing a return to a more traditional weekly release schedule for their scripted shows, it seems best for all of us if Netflix follows suit.

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