Last week, in a Reddit AMA, Jerry Seinfeld hinted (pretty transparently) that Netflix was in talks to buy the rights to Seinfeld, and since then the speculation has been bouncing off the walls. If a deal goes through, not only will it be a blow to Jeff Bezos and his conquering horde—which just bought up streaming rights to a bunch of HBO shows, including The Sopranos and The Wire—but it would mark a huge shift in the future of the past of television: syndication. What was once a kind of eternal flame of beloved shows, twice a night before Jeopardy!, looks sort of goofy next to nine full seasons streaming without commercials. But is Seinfeld bingeworthy?
With the undoubtedly bingeworthy Orange is the New Black and House of Cards now more or less through for the year (even for those who dragged it out), many people have taken the opportunity to make up for lost time with other bingeathons of shows they never got around to: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Freaks and Geeks. Everything old is new again—or new to you, maybe—and it’s now possible to watch dozens of series, from pilot to finale, either in teasingly small bites, week by week, or in a single, Templetonian bender.
Netflix has assembled a near-encyclopedic library of television history (albeit with a few glaring holes—where is Happy Endings, you guys?), which has broadened the audience of such shows even as it has shrunken the experience. Past TV shows are watched in a vacuum, with no cultural context or TV Guide schedule (except on Frank Costanza’s bookshelf). Streaming-television premieres, like those of Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, retain the social experience of primetime even without a primetime slot—“everyone” is watching House of Cards for a few weeks just as “everyone” watched the finale of Friends. Even long after they are consumed in what feels like a single sitting, these shows sit on the virtual Netflix shelf forever (we hope), all in one piece.
The adhesion between episodes of such seasons is one of the most worthwhile byproducts of the Netflix Age, because it (often) minimizes the thinkpiecey spume, for fear of spoilers. Perhaps more importantly, though, the fact that a streaming series is released all at once, rather than piecemeal, prevents TV execs from reacting to critical responses from only a handful of early episodes, thus cutting short the life of a show just beginning to find its way.
For the viewer, binge-watching—or “unregulated viewing,” to employ less judgmental terminology—blocks out the critical and social noise of modern TV viewing (live-tweeting, in particular) so that seasons are received (and, increasingly, written) more like miniseries, with fully formed story arcs that readers are trusted to carry through a few episodes.
In the case of a few shows, the miniseries-ish format can lead to fuller, more fleshed out characters and deeper, longer narratives arcs, ones that need not be resolved neatly in twenty or forty-five minutes. In other cases—Seinfeld, for example—there is no narrative arc to preserve, really (other than maybe Susan), and the advantage of having it all in one place is purely hedonic. Counter to much of the dramatic, story-driven prêt-à-binger content being developed now, Seinfeld is as satisfying in random order as it might be in a carefully ordered sequence.
But arc or no, this all-in-one-place, all-at-once method of consumption may be more or less how we watch everything soon enough, television shows both old and new, collected on Netflix, or Hulu, or Amazon Prime. This, I imagine, is the manner in which our children and grandchildren will encounter the greatest television of our era, which they will dutifully stream on their iPad Drones, whether or not they know or can remember what a television set ever even was.
A deep session of unregulated viewing can ruin (or redeem) an entire weekend, as we well know, and is risky for the addiction-prone. In a lightly employed time in my life, I tore through four seasons of Community on Hulu in the span of about two weeks. Without the prohibitive timing of movies by mail or the in-store uncertainty of video stores, Breaking Bad could begin and end in one harrowing week.
But with or without self-control, in TV’s new normal we no longer have to say goodbye to our beloved series, whether they survivie on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or even YouTube, let’s be real. We sincerely hope Seinfeld will join the ranks of bingeable TV, if only because our DVD box set is getting a little beat up.
Follow John Sherman on Twitter @_john_sherman.