Some years ago, after the first season of “Downton Abbey” aired on PBS and the second season had begun, friends began urging me and my wife to catch up with the show.
This happens to all of us, of course — especially now, as viewing habits are so fragmented with uncountable combinations of cable networks, streaming sites and DVD/Blu-ray/digital availabilities.
Everyone has a favorite show, and everyone wants to share.
But even in 2011, the viewing options were too numerous to keep up with. We had read encouraging and even effusive reviews that recommended “Downton Abbey” but somehow had let it slip by us.
Our friends insisted: “It’s only seven episodes.” “This is genuine must-see TV.” “You’ll love it.”
We felt culturally shamed. Well, for about three minutes, until we forgot about it again.
Then one day, while browsing at Costco, there it was — the first-season DVD set of “Downton Abbey.” We picked it up and that evening settled in to watch a couple of episodes before calling it a night.
Instead, we found the show so completely captivating that, like an absorbing book, we just couldn’t put it down.
After the third episode, I glanced at the clock and smiled, hesitating before asking, “Wanna watch another?” We wound up watching five full episodes that took us well past the witching hour. And the next evening we finished the last two.
That was our first experience with what is now called “binge-watching” or “binge-viewing” or “marathon-viewing" or, more commonly, simply “binging.”
If binging the show were something our fellow “Downton Abbey” fans had suggested to us — or even said that’s what they were doing — we’d have winced. Really? Four or five or six hours or more of one show in one evening? What are you, nuts?
But things change. Television isn’t what it used to be.
Back in my day (he said, shooing kids off the lawn), you watched a show when it was on, and maybe you could catch a rerun during the summer — but that was it. When it was over, it was gone.
And for TV’s first couple of decades, the average series produced 30-39 episodes each year. Today, network shows average 22 episodes a season, and cable shows average eight to 15.
It was also rare back then to see programs continue a storyline from week to week. Oh, dramatic shows occasionally had two-episode stories (the first ending with “to be continued” on the screen), until serials like “The Fugitive” (1963-67) and “Peyton Place” (1964-69) changed the game a bit. But for a long time, they remained the exceptions to the rule.
Today, we expect dramatic series, even those that feature standalone plots week to week, to include a subplot that spans several episodes.
And serials have become the rule for cable and streaming shows of every genre, telling one story over a short season and sometimes over an entire series.
So, if you’re like us, you may save up episodes on your DVR or wait for the season or series to end so you can stream it all at once. And, of course, Netflix and Amazon and other sites are putting up entire seasons to encourage binging.
There is also a practical application. When we watch one of these shows week to week and then get busy and miss a week or two, we often forget what happened. Sure, there’s that “previously on ” reminder at the front of each episode, but there are still characters we don’t remember or plot elements that are a bit confusing. Watching episodes closer together helps us to keep up.
Some of the recent programs we’ve enjoyed watching in big chunks are “Justified,” “Longmire,” “Fargo,” “The People v. O.J.: American Crime Story,” “Feud: Bette and Joan” and others. And an older show, “The West Wing” (thank you, Netflix).
For you it may be superhero shows like “Flash,” “Supergirl” and “Daredevil” or period dramas like “Mad Men” or horror like “The Walking Dead” or satires like “Suits” or well, the possibilities are endless.
Which is the point.
There is no watercooler commonality anymore. Gone are the days when you gathered with co-workers and talked about last night’s episode of, well, whatever. Someone in the group hasn’t watched that episode yet (“No spoilers, please!”). Someone else doesn’t watch the show at all. And yet another someone wants to talk about a different program.
It ain’t your father’s TV schedule. It’s the new normal. It is what it is. At the end of the day, that’s how we roll. And other clichés that sum up the experience.