The upscale binge

Almost 15 years ago, "The Sopranos" kicked off a national fancy-TV bender. We still haven't hit bottom.

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

From the minute on January 10, 1999, that Tony revealed his mob-life crisis on the pilot episode of “The Sopranos,” viewers marveled that television had become as good as cinema. That now seems like a strange response. “The Sopranos” was virtuoso work, and it looked lush, but it was considerably more than a mere movie. Movies run for, what, 100 minutes? “The Sopranos” lasted for almost 90 hours. It takes years of devotion to savor a mille-feuille show like “The Sopranos.”

Either that or, as we do it in 2013, a demented binge. You watch three episodes back to back. Or seven. A season. Three seasons. Soon you’ve eaten the whole bag.

In the last 15 years, TV viewers have fallen hard for the genre that Vincent Canby once dubbed the “megamovie.” Season after season, we get captivating, slow-burning, intellectually dense visual entertainment on cable and the Internet: “Justified,” “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men,” “Homeland,” “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black.”

Trained by “The Sopranos” in cable fandom, viewers now turn each of these shows into its own “Star Trek," with a galaxy of detail-delirious fans. Megamovies are supersized entertainment watched with a magnifying glass.

But after ”The Sopranos,” we stopped decorously decanting our television — pouring out an oceanic series into hourlong or 30-minute jugs, and doing our social drinking once a week.

Instead, using DVRs or cable and Internet on-demand services, we’ve been hoarding the shows for benders. Done alone, with a laptop or tablet in bed, this kind of TV consumption really can resemble a druglike binge — but the shows are so extraordinary that the pixel-snorting fests bring more pleasure than guilt. It’s somehow more dignified than the “marathons” the old Viacom channels used to run of eye candy like “The Real World” or “Behind the Music.” During those marathons, you subjected yourself to ads, preview, recaps, and all manner of repetitive moronism — usually because you couldn’t be bothered to leave the couch.

With a binge, you’re less disdainful, more riveted. The shows are styled like Tolstoy, and promises abound that they reward close viewing. You don’t turn vegetable watching them; you turn critic, leaning into a laptop, popping on Twitter, neurons firing, racing to make original connections and anticipate themes and plot. Or so it seems, anyway. Maybe the old marathon was more like one, more stoned and self-loathing drug, while the new binge — on upscale dramas — is like another fancier drug. Maybe sherry. In any case, today’s binge viewers certainly talks as though they've been to a film festival or studied deeply respectable, midlist novels when they're coming down from 10 hours of “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones.”

There’s also a new kind of intimacy possible when you and a friend hole up — as many couples do — with a long-line narrative absorbed in perfect synchronicity. Some kind of whalelike mental hum seems to pervade a room when opening credits are rolling for the seventh “Homeland,” say, in a row. ("I won't -- I can't -- let that happen again.")

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Kevin Spacey as U.S. Congressman Frank Underwood in a scene from the Netflix original series, "House of Cards. …

Both viewers know that one person loves the credit sequence, while the other finds it misleading and spastic. Every time you watch it you find more to agree and disagree about. For those of us who are bothered by the impossibility of reading a novel with a friend, synchronized binge TV is the next best thing.

A year or so ago, starting with "House of Cards," Netflix became the first network to fully embrace this trend, releasing new TV series in Costco-size batches instead of one episode at a time. There were, this past July 11,13 brand-new episodes of “Orange Is the New Black,” laid all out in defiance of portion control, like buttered rolls and creamed spinach at Western Sizzlin’. All summer, Twitter seemed to be crackling with women just coming to after a nightlong “Orange” bacchanal.

Now pay-TV companies are tentatively jumping in on the action. This fall, Comcast came up with a proposal to offer on-demand— on TV and mobile — all the episodes of shows like Fox's "The Mindy Project" and FX's "Justified." You can mainline them just like you can “House of Cards” on Netflix.

Matt Warburton, the showrunner for “The Mindy Project,” offers tips on the show’s site for how best to binge on Mindy Kaling’s comedy show. “I would recommend [drinking] whiskey cocktails and [eating] sour straws,” he says. “Sour straws are Mindy the real person’s favorite.”

Ah, cocktails and candy. That's legacy binging. There’s nothing newfangled about that.

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