The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: Watching Live vs. Inhaling the DVDs

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageNo matter how hard I try (and I try very hard), I simply cannot keep up with all the shows simultaneously on the air in any given season. First priority, of course, always goes to those shows I love myself — sometimes in spite of what other people (or critics) think. Then there is the shows I have followed for years, even though I may have fallen out of love with them (Bones). And of course, I try to stay on top of those “critically acclaimed” darlings, because I am a sucker for quality.

But with the sheer quantity of shows out there and even more networks joining the fold of creating original content (Starz is really pushing forward on this front, so is FX), there will always be shows that fall by the wayside. Now, I admit, some of those I intentionally omit from my viewing schedule, such as the 90210 reboot, One Tree Hill or Desperate Housewives. Most of the time though, I use especially the summer months to catch up on all things I haven’t watched so far. This can be the latest season of a show returning in the fall or even an show from years past (such as I recently did with Dawson’s Creek).

I have always been a completionist, and so I strive for completion in my TV consumption. Yet I notice the differences that occur in my perception of shows when I watch them live week for week or when I inhale them on DVD within a few days (or weeks). Which begs the question: which way of watching is better?

Let’s start by looking at the pros of watching a show live:
You get a regular dose every week and this prevents any serious withdrawal symptoms you could have, although the summer months (or in True Blood‘s case the fall, winter and spring months) can seem awfully long. If you watch live though, you get to go along with the showmakers’ pace of things. A drawn-out romance will only seem “drawn-out” if you watch it unfold over the course of several months and not within 8 hours on the DVD.

Also, watching live gives the creators of a show a bit more leeway when it comes to continuity. Who really remembers how long a character’s hair was when a show returns in the fall and supposedly picks up exactly where it left off in May? When you watch the DVD, you’ll notice. When you watch live, you couldn’t care less.
But there is a dark side to this continuity leeway: shows tend to get sloppy. Gaps in logic, gaps in emotional development, gaps in timing pop up everywhere (How can Teddy in Grey’s Anatomy be introduced to the show as a “cardio god”, when 20 episodes later she supposedly hasn’t published any papers and won no awards?). These gaps could be avoided if the people making the shows kept their own material always close in mind and regularly went back to it. (The worst part is when new writers are brought on and they seemingly don’t even bother to watch the old episodes so that they know what has come before their “glorious era”. I call this “writing schizophrenia” and it happens to more shows than I would like to mention.)

ImageA definite “con” to watching live is that you have to go along with the showmakers’ pace of things. Wait, didn’t I just put this down as a “pro”? Well, each coin has a side facing the sun and one facing darkness (Damages fans HOLLER at the reference!). Nothing is more annoying than a cliffhanger at the end of an episode and then having to wait a week to find out what happens, because most of the time when the new episode is on, you have already forgotten what happened last time (or at least the details of it). Or you are just unlucky and the baseball World Series cuts off your show for several weeks and you are left with your cliffhanger.
If you watch a show on DVD, you don’t have this problem.

If you decide to inhale a show on DVD — be it only one season or seven seasons of a show that has been around forever but you just never got into — you can decide the pace yourself. If you wanted to, you could even pause in the middle of an episode because you have to go out or because your phone is ringing or…… This, of course, is not in the showmakers’ original interest, but who really cares about them, right? The customer is king.
Well, let’s just say that I try not to destroy the “artistic value” (for lack of a better term) of a show by pausing too much, but it sure is handy.
And who doesn’t love commercial free television?

Another great thing about watching a show on DVD is the fact that if you watch enough of it, a good show can actually take you off into its own world, and I am talking complete immersion here. One hour a week is barely enough to let you forget about the crappy work day you had, but watch an entire season of The Wire over the course of a weekend and come Monday you will find yourself noticing the lingering homeless guy on the corner and suspect he is either an undercover cop gone rogue or a drug dealer, but definitely up to no good.

ImageHowever, as I said in my introduction, inhaling the DVDs might lead to a different opinion of a show than watching it live. For example, the gaps in logic and continuity in Lost are all the more obvious and annoying when you watch the show on DVD, which I did (Seasons 1-4) and hence don’t like the show, because I think it is nothing more than a pretentious mindfuck.
The inherent flaws almost all TV shows have become all the more apparent, when the show cannot rely on the bad memory of its viewers. And sometimes remembering everything isn’t even a good thing when watching the DVDs, as happened to me with the second season of Damages. There was simply too much going on and only half of it was important, so I would have been glad to have watched that one live and have forgotten some of the details in between episodes.

The emotional disconnect can also be higher when you watch a show on DVD. What do I mean by this? I think it’s simply harder to accept the evolution or maturing of a character over time when you don’t actually live a comparable amount of time as well. An example: Season 6 of Buffy would not have seemed as long-winded, drawn-out, mopey and dark to fans if they had gotten to watch it on DVD in the time-frame of a weekend. They could have been done with Buffy’s depression within 48 hours, but instead they had to watch her be lifeless and reckless for months and months, which caused considerable frustration. (Of course, this was quite the feat to pull of, I believe, as the fans were made just as miserable as the character herself, therefore the catharsis in the end was all the more powerful, for everyone within the show and watching the show.)

I find I am partial to inhaling shows on DVD, because it gives me the chance to notice subtleties and technical devices most people don’t give a crap about. But I like paying attention to the editing, the sound design, the frame design, the direction and the cinematography, which is so much easier to do if you have more than 40 minutes to go on.
However, some shows I will always watch live, simply because I cannot wait until the end of the season, when I could watch the entire season all at once, to know what happens.
I am always aware though that some shows may suffer from continuous DVD viewing (such as Lost or FlashForward all half-hour comedies or even Mad Men), while others unfold their true power when delivered in high doses (such as The Wire, Californication, Burn Notice or any competition show a la Project Runway or America’s Next Top Model).

Summer is just around the corner, so watch this space for articles about the shows I decide to inhale on DVD this year, while all the other shows are on hiatus. (Suggestions very welcome.)