On Binge Watching and Character Development

Hello, my name is Michelle, and I’m a binge watcher.

Wait. I’m not sure this is a new confession. I’ve had that line about watching too much TV in my bio for YEARS. Plus, check out this dictionary definition for binge watching:

So, what this means is, when I bought those box sets of Buffy the Vampire SlayerFriends and Alias like 20 years ago and popped one in after another, I was binge watching? I guess I was ahead of the curve and didn’t even know it!

But in all honesty, I was not an early adopter of streaming services, mainly because I still watched a ton of network shows and had them piled up on my DVR (okay, I still have entire seasons of things on my DVR). And then Fuller House debuted on Netflix. The subscription was supposed to be a Christmas gift that I canceled after I watched the show. That was–what?–five years ago? So far our only other subscriptions are Prime and Disney+, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that something will entice me to add another. (We did have a free AppleTV subscription for a while and another season of Ted Lasso could tempt me…)

The first several shows I binged were all new shows, specifically written for streaming services. But then I realized Netflix also offered the opportunity to catch up on some older shows I’d never gotten around to watching, and I have to say my experience bingeing older shows has been… mixed.

I started with a show that is beloved by many YA authors. I loved the smart dialogue and banter, even if one of the two main characters annoyed me most of the time. I made it through six seasons, and then it just lost me. It seemed like the writers decided to rely on plot to keep viewers hooked instead of staying true to the characters, because the non-annoying main character started acting completely out of character. I just didn’t buy her actions. But the beauty of binge watching is that I could look ahead at descriptions for the rest of the show and decide, “Nope, not spending my time on this!”

I tried another older show, also popular in the YA community (actually from a book series). I got through two seasons of that one before giving up. And once again, a main character started acting in a way that made no sense with the way he’d been set up previously. I haven’t read the books, so I don’t know if it lines up with them or not, but I was done.

Then I moved on to Downton Abbey, which has nothing to do with the YA community but was just recommended to me by all sorts of people. I was immediately hooked, and once again, I realized it all came down to characters. I recently presented to a group of teen writers for a camp, and one of the things I said was that each character, major or minor, should be the main character of their own story. Watching Downton Abbey, I seriously couldn’t think of anyone (except an extra) who didn’t have a fully developed story.

I feel like I could ask these character questions for everyone from Daisy in the kitchens to the dowager duchess:

  • What do they want more than anything?
  • What internal conflict keeps them from getting it?
  • What external conflict keeps them from achieving their goal?
  • What in their background contributes to how they react to conflicts/new opportunities?

PLUS, the characters remained consistent throughout the show–yes, I made it all the way to the end of this one! To clarify, that doesn’t mean the characters didn’t grow and change with what they learned about the world or from other people in their lives. It just means from beginning to end they were fundamentally still the same people at heart, working toward the same goal.

Dowager Countess memeMy favorite character was the dowager countess, played by Maggie Smith. She has the best lines in the show. Here’s one I especially enjoyed. —–>

I’m now wondering: If I binge watched some of those DVD box sets as a new viewer, would I still see them the same way? Would Buffy getting involved with Spike push me over the edge? (It almost did anyway.) Would I give up on the endless back and forth between Ross and Rachel? (I mean, Chandler and Monica are clearly the better couple anyway.) And don’t get me started on Lost… Actually, that one did turn me away in the end. My kids have been bugging me to watch Buffy, so maybe I’ll just get their take on it.

I’m sure I’ll still keep trying older shows that others rave about, just so I know what they’re talking about, but I wonder if I’ll keep finding the same issues. I’m curious if anyone else has tried binge watching an older show and experienced the same thing. My sense is that streaming services, with seasons being released closer together and the previous seasons always available, have made writers more accountable with characters–and plot too, I suppose.

Curious what others think. Let me know in the comments!

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