We’re not sure exactly when “binge watching” became a household term, but it definitely aligned with the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu, among others. Sure, you could sort of binge on shows that were put out on DVDs, but that was such a pain – you know, you had to *gasp* get up off the couch and switch the DVDs. Some say the dawn of binge viewing was at the end of 2011, when 3 critically acclaimed cable shows (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Walking Dead) had their complete seasons released on Netflix, and finally found the large audience they were missing on cable. However, I’d cite the release of House of Cards’ first season, again on Netflix, as the start. Reportedly having spent north of $100 million and featuring A-list talent and a red-hot director in David Fincher, it was radical to release all 13 episodes at once. It was a huge gamble with their first major foray into original content, and it paid off. Now, there are literally hundreds of streaming-only shows on various platforms – so much that it’s hard to keep up with all the critics, friends and family recommendations. Well, let’s add ours to the mix as we look at our best of binge.
Binging on TV may not always be good for our physical health, but I do think the creation of original content that is available all at once, vs. having to wait each week for the next episode, has its benefits. What I have noticed is that streaming shows are more successful at building characters that you truly care about and that ultimately is what hooks you more than action sequences or intricate storylines. Network TV always had to design each week’s episode with a “stand alone” narrative structure, and 20-40 minutes does not give you a lot of time to have a beginning, middle, and end, plus develop characters. Plus, it’s great to be able to watch 3-4 episodes on a rainy day, or watch an episode on your tablet before bed – as long as you don’t fall victim to that Netflix countdown that draws you right into the next episode (“Oh, I’ll just watch 10 minutes of the next one”) Right.
Bosch – Amazon (Seasons 1-3)
The cop show is the most pervasive genre in TV over the past few decades. Even with all that has come before, this series, based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling books about LA homicide detective Harry Bosch, manages to feel fresh and different. Despite a self-righteous indignation that can border on irritating, the character of Bosch is what keeps us reading the novels, and Titus Welliver, previously an excellent character actor, is perfectly cast. Truly, this marriage of actor and character is the best I’ve seen in a while…maybe since Kevin Spacey and Frank Underwood. The format of each season takes several cases from different novels and intertwines them. The writing, directing and supporting cast all work together to strike a realistic tone – LA doesn’t feel overly gritty and crime-ridden, nor is it glorified either. Truly, the 13-episode streaming series is the best way to present these novels, as movies wouldn’t have had the time to develop Bosch’s character, and network TV wouldn’t have tolerated the “bleed” of the narrative from one episode to the next. I don’t know if the details of the cop-work are accurate, but it feels right to me, and that’s all that counts.
DJ: If I watched this I want to see the Smoke Monster from Lost. I am sure this is quality TV, Titus Welliver is a pretty good actor, has a great resume. Never read the books either. I will bump this up over Orange is the New Black.
Black Mirror – Netflix (Season 1-3)
Ok, so you might call this “binge-lite”, since each season only has 3-6 episodes, and it’s also an anthology series, similar to a “Twilight Zone” format. The first two seasons aired on British TV before Netflix picked it up and ordered two 6-episode series, the second of which comes out later this year. The series focuses on the role/impact of technology in society. The technology is set in the near future, although much of it feels like something that you might presume is already in prototype form in a secret Google or Apple lab. The writing is the star of this series, which is not to sell short the stellar acting from the mix of British and American cast. Some episodes are eerie and/or disturbing, like the first entry in the series “The National Anthem”, about a perverse ransom demand of the Prime Minister, while others border on scary, like the virtual-reality gaming episode “Playtest”. The episode “White Christmas”, featuring Jon Hamm, is a masterfully plotted brain pretzel that will make you wonder where it’s going, then hits you hard with its twist ending. And then there’s “San Junipero”, which is often regarded as the best of the series and focuses on a relationship, set in the 80’s, between a shy young woman who is new in town and an outgoing party girl. I won’t give it away, but I challenge anyone to watch this episode and keep a dry eye. It was unexpected to find an episode so emotional, yet it still feels like it belongs in this techno-dystopian anthology.
DJ: I have seen a couple of these. Since its an anthology show I jumped around and the first one I watched was “Be Right Back” with Domhnall Gleeson (The Force Awakens, Ex Machina) and Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter). It was good. Then I went back and watched the first episode and it was disturbing. Honestly it turned me off, probably will go back but probably won’t binge watch.
Narcos – Netflix (Season 1-2)
Narcos is another streaming series I just can’t see any major broadcast or cable network making. It’s based on the true story of the intense and violent pursuit of drug lord Pablo Escobar in Colombia from the late 70’s to the early 90’s. Our narrator and guide is real-life DEA agent Steve Murphy, played unevenly by Boyd Holbrook, who is partnered with Colombian-born Javier Pena, played by Pedro Pascal, who commands the screen in every scene he’s in. Pascal, who was also compelling in his short and ill-fated role in Game of Thrones, captures the nobility, heartbreak, and frustration of a cop who’s trying to make a legal case in the midst of extreme violence and lawlessness. You feel his pain as he reluctantly bends then breaks the law to make progress against such overwhelming odds. However, it’s Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, as Escobar, who truly makes this show work. A lot of actors can convince us of the despicable nature of a crime kingpin, Escobar was truly one of the world’s worst, but few actors can make us believe that he was beloved by many of his countrymen. Many saw him as a Robin Hood figure fighting a corrupt government. The series goes into a lot of detail about the rise of drug smuggling in the 80’s, and the subsequent battles between rival drug cartels – which is the focus of the still-compelling but weaker Season 2. You could describe it a blend of Miami Vice and Scarface, but that would only be telling half the story.
DJ: Never really had much interest in this one. Not sure why. No known actors, maybe the concept. Not a Miami Vice guy.
I rarely have time to actually sit and binge watch but I get what you are saying. For me it’s not just about the Netflix or Amazon platform dropping a whole season at once, it’s sometimes discovering something I hadn’t known about or hadn’t given a chance previously. Game of Thrones is an example of this, I had to originally binge-watch to catch up and now it’s not binge watching as I eagerly await the new season and will watch in real time. For me, I will die not seeing everything I want to, got Daredevil and Jessica Jones but no Luke Cage or Iron Fist yet…and yes I have to see Iron Fist just so I can watch The Defenders, I am a completist. I could easy include the Marvel series and House of Cards in this post but wanted to go a little deeper. The shows you picked are dark and gritty so I am going to try to lighten it up just a bit.
The IT Crowd – Netflix (Series 1-5)
My first selection is the 2006 British comedy The IT Crowd. This never played in the states so when it was released on Netflix it was a binge watcher for us Americans. I am a fan of British Comedies, I loved Are You Being Served? on PBS. Before the streaming craze I “binged” Fawlty Towers, the raunchy “Friends” like comedy, Coupling and the Simon Pegg vehicle Spaced. I just randomly saw The IT Crowd on Netflix and knowing nothing about it watched the first episode and quite frankly didn’t enjoy it, at some point I gave it one more chance and watched episode 2 “Calamity Jane” and I was hooked. The show centers around a large company and it’s three IT workers that share a basement space. Jen is the new IT manager and Roy and Moss are the IT staff, played by the great Chris O’ Dowd (Bridesmaids, Moone Boy) and Richard Ayoade (The Watch). Roy and Moss are your stereotypical IT nerds and Katherine Parkinson plays their straight man. In later episodes, the obscene Matt Berry plays the big boss and he is completely politically incorrect. As any sitcom, they get into bad situations and most always nothing ever ends well. Like most British series, The IT Crowd is short, the whole series is 24 episodes, broken up into 4 short series and a one-off finale. This is an easy binge watch. The second series episode “The Work Outing” is probably my favorite. The chemistry of the main three actors is strong and all three have physical comedy and their comedic timing down. I have included a clip below that one you tuber has called the best scene from The IT Crowd.
Bonus: In 2007 NBC decided to remake this with Joel Mchale in the Roy role and Richard Ayoade reprising Moss. Thankfully it was canceled before it began, because like Coupling before it, you can’t Americanize this.
MG: I will have to check this out some time. It’s nice to have a half-hour comedy in the binge mix (Catastrophe, Master of None and the UK The Office have served in this capacity for me). I’m a fan of Chris O’Dowd’s dry humor.
Mr. Robot- Amazon (Seasons 1-2)
So Mr. Robot was one of these series that someone had casually mentioned in passing that I should watch. I would love it. I have to watch it. You won’t regret it, etc…I put it off and kept being a Mr. Robot denier. How could the USA network have a good show and with Christian Slater in it no doubt? The network that has bad late night movies and Murder She Wrote reruns could never have a show I would watch. Then I started to hear the buzz about it. By this time, season one had completed. So of course I had to binge watch it. To my amazement it was fantastic. Rami Malek, Emmy winner, stars as Elliot Alderson a hacker with some drug and depression issues. Christian Slater recruits him to join a group of activist hackers. Sam Esmail has created a gritty, tense, pyschotic thriller that keeps you guessing, You can’t wait to get to the next episode. There are some twists and the show is exhilarating at every turn. The acting and directing are both tight. Esmail’s use of music is a character in itself and its noticeable and effective. It’s use of showing a realistic world of the hacker community has been given praises by the hacking world. Malek, who I had only remembered from the Night at The Museum, movies is stunning in this role. I will say despite how good the show is, it did take me a few episodes to get hooked and I almost put it down. It was around the 4th or 5th episode where I was all in. Now I look at it and say damn I must have missed something early on. To say much more would take the joy out of someone experiencing it for the first time.
Bonus: A great show for strong female characters, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, and Grace Gummer all have major roles and prove that there are writers and directors that can give women the roles they deserve.
MG: One of my favorite TV series in recent years. I was one of the people telling you to watch this. Another masterful pairing of character and actor in Rami Malek, although the supporting cast is just as good. I admire the fact that Esmail was given such latitude to create a show that defies conventions. This is the benefit of so much content being out there – production companies are forced to allow writers/directors to push the envelope, which can result in some unexpected TV.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Return – Netflix (Season 1)
I loved this show in the 90’s so when I heard it was coming back I was super pumped. The beauty with a Netflix, an Amazon, a Hulu is they take risks, they trust the creators of these new programs to get it right. For this show to return a Kickstarter had to be created. Creator Joel Hodgson was back to guide the show. The cast was turned over and new actors picked, Jonah Ray as the new “Joel”, the lovely Felicia Day as the villain and the funny Patton Oswalt as her henchman. The robots also all got new voices. New movies were picked to riff on and here we are. It’s still the same concept as Jonah is forced to watch bad movies with his robot pals Crow, Tom Servo, and Gypsy. It’s a credible funny reboot that honors its predecessor. The writers as always created rapid-fire, witty, pop cultural jokes, that you won’t always get on the first viewing, its just too quick sometimes. Some gags extend to another episode and pay off later. There are three stand out episodes. The first, “Avalanche” with Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow is a disaster movie from the trend of the 70’s. I have a disaster movie enthusiast friend that would probably just love the movie itself. The second is “Cry Wilderness”, here is the plot from Wikipedia: Young Paul tries to protect his father from a prophesied danger while also hiding a Bigfoot-type creature from a poacher. How awesome does that sound? Lastly and my overall favorite is “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom”, this one is about a boy, a drunk swordsman, and a white Chewbacca-like character without a face, and there is magic and elves, its completely nuts and Jonah and the Bots have a field day. This show is not for everyone and the in-between segments were never my cup of tea but the riffing makes me laugh and that’s what its supposed to do. It’s a perfect thing to watch to escape reality.
Bonus: The first episode has Buck Rodgers and Silver Spoons star Erin Gray in it, so great to see her back in front of the camera. Where has she been?
MG: The plot summary you included above could come straight out of Balderdash. I enjoyed watching the show back in the day, but now that I’m older I don’t know if I can spend time on this considering all the other good content out there. I think I have less of a desire to escape reality than you. For the most part, I love the grim and grittier fare. There’s a bottomless pit of the filth and despair of human existence, and it can be strangely cathartic to wallow in it.