A lot of news about the forthcoming Disney+ streaming service emerged from last month's D23, from more details about Jeff Goldblum's docuseries The World According to Jeff Goldblum to the revelation that Marvel cult favorites Moon Knight and She-Hulk would be getting their own series. But one of the most significant details had nothing to do with what we'd be seeing than when and how we'd be seeing it. Rather than dropping full seasons at once, Disney+ will roll out episodes on a weekly basis. If you, for instance, want to see what The Mandalorian does with its corner of the Star Wars universe, you'll have to follow it one week at a time rather than blazing through all the episodes at once. And as promising as many of the Disney+ shows look, this might be the best news of all.
When Netflix first employed the full-season-at-once model, it felt innovative... daring even. Rather than having to wait week-after-week for the next installment of a favorite series, viewers could binge it. The early days of Netflix's streaming service had to reassure subscribers that they could have the selection and viewing quality of its DVD-by-mail service at the push of a button. The full-season releases of early series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black took this push to another level. It was akin to getting a full-season DVD box set. And for viewers then increasingly in the habit of catching up with seasons of shows like The Sopranosand Lost after they aired, what could be better?
The approach worked brilliantly, at least for a while. When Arrested Development released its fourth season in May 2013, you could chart fans' progress by watching references to it on Twitter. (You could also chart a creeping sense of disappointment, but that's another issue.) Other streaming services like Amazon Prime followed Netflix's example, and even NBC tried to get in on the action by experimenting with releasing a whole season of its summer series Aquarius at the same time as its premiere. (Hulu, notably, has opted for a hybrid approach. New comedy Shrill, for instance, premiered all its episodes at once, while series like The Handmaid's Tale typically begin their seasons with two or three episodes before rolling out subsequent installments weekly.)
The approach has obvious advantages for viewers. One day, you don't have any new episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. The next, you have every episode of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. But it's also led to a feeling of overload. That sense of never being able to keep up with every series worth watching has much to do with the fact that there's more TV now than ever — and more high quality TV as well — but also because shows land on our virtual doorsteps in bulk quantities with alarming frequency. It's not great for TV fans. But it's also not great for TV series.
When the Disney+ news broke, TV critic Alan Sepinwall tweeted it came as good news both "selfishly and as a fan of the conversation around TV." Those of us who sometimes have to write about full seasons of TV all at once don't need any pity. (Nice work if you can get it, even if it can be overwhelming.) But the full-season release model has changed the ways both TV critics and TV fans talk about some of the best series on television. Specifically, we don't talk about them enough.
One recent example: Stranger Things released its third season on July 4th. It was, by and large, another fine season for the show, and a season with plenty to unpack, from its use of an '80s shopping mall as a central setting to the breakout work of Maya Hawke. It's not as if all of that passed without notice, but the window for talking about the show opened and closed so quickly that by the next weekend no one seemed to be talking about Stranger Things much at all.
More recently, Netflix's GLOW dropped a third season on Aug. 9th that should have provided conversational fodder for weeks. One episode ended with Debbie (Betty Gilpin) purging after a heavy meal, a character detail the series left unresolved, a development that raises a lot of issues in a season that also touched on the Challenger explosion, AIDS, and the changing face of Las Vegas entertainment, to say nothing of major developments between characters. (What's going on with Ruth and Sam? And does it make any sense?) It's a pretty great season of television, but three weeks later, is anyone still talking about GLOW?
That doesn't mean they shouldn't be. Or that they couldn't be. For a counterexample, consider HBO's Succession. It's currently halfway into its second season and each installment feels like an event. Can the season produce a plot development even more notable than the third episode's already infamous game of "Boar on the Floor"? You'll have to tune in to find out. By drawing out its seasons, networks and streaming services give them water cooler value, and they broaden their cultural footprint. Succession's cultural moment will last for weeks while Stranger Things and GLOW recede into memory.
There's nothing wrong with binge watching (within healthy limits, of course) and the idea of having full runs of TV seasons past and present accessible at all times is an innovation that might have seemed like science fiction even 15 years ago. But where the option of giving viewers new seasons of TV en masse once served as a novel competitive advantage — why wait when you can have it all now? — its limitations have started to become apparent. That's to say nothing of how intimidating it can be to stare at 10 or 13 episodes and wonder when you'll have the time to watch all of them, particularly with new full-season blocks following so quickly on their heels. (Done with GLOW? Here's nine hours of Mindhunter for you.)
TV released on a weekly basis, however, becomes part of the ebb and flow of daily life. The days of everyone sitting down at the same time to watch the same show are in the past, apart from outliers like Game of Thrones. But the all-or-nothing option of the full-season-at-once feels like an inadequate replacement, offering few of the communal pleasures that have defined TV from its start and blunting the cultural impact of shows we should all be talking about together. Miss the too brief and usually too shallow conversations summoned up in the first days after a season's release and it's easy to feel like you're watching alone in the dark.