Like everyone else on the planet it seems, I’ve been tuning in to weekly episodes of Disney Plus’ latest television venture WandaVision. The series marks the return of beloved “second-tier” Avengers Wanda Maximoff and Vision, and is the first in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s foray into television. The development of these series (in conjunction with entertainment overload Disney Plus) gives creators the chance to develop the stories of characters who can’t otherwise carry their own film franchise, which only furthers the global reach and popularity of Marvel to date.
This particular series has taken off in a major way (a relief to all parties involved, I’m sure, given the budget of an estimated $25 million per episode). Each episode takes us through a decade of quintessential American television, beginning in the black-and-white 1950s and taking us through to a Modern Family-inspired mockumentary sitcom in the 2010s. But the weekly distribution of these episodes has drawn criticism from those more accustomed to the ‘binge drop’ style made popular by streaming sites such as Netflix and Stan.
Weekly installation vs. binge drop
Writing for IndieWire, Ben Travers’ criticism of WandaVision’s sixth instalment created a stir when he suggested that “WandaVision still feels far too much like an inflated feature film that just keeps dragging out its story via inconvenient weekly instalments”. Impatient fans argue that Netflix’s ‘Defendersverse’, which dropped all episodes of critically acclaimed series Daredevil and Jessica Jones at once, provided better fan service and a more engaging narrative flow. For a company (even one as monolithic as Disney) attempting to carve out a dominant platform in the streaming world, Disney Plus’ delayed gratification is distinctly out of place.
But this weekly-drop style is a refreshing return to the rhythm of television we all grew up with. Fans of WandaVision can pour over videos and articles breaking down Easter eggs and spend the next six days comparing theories with friends. It’s a return to the ‘watercooler experience’ that television provides, where all anyone can talk about at work the day after the latest episode is what they think is going to happen in the next episode. The grip that television giants like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad had over us during their seasonal runs would last months, and even casual viewers could play catch-up and be right on schedule for the next episode.
To binge or not to binge…
The benefits to binge drops are great: they provide a sense of flow this is satisfying to audiences. But hardcore fans treat them like marathons, sitting through thirteen hours of television to finish the series and avoid spoilers. Details get lost, because who is going to remember dialogue from a random scene in episode seven after consuming hours of content in one sitting? For those who can’t watch the series all at once, or even for more casual viewers, it’s easy to get lost trying to follow a never-ending string of episodes, or for the season to be spoiled entirely.
The wait between binge drops also detracts from the viewing experience and creates another layer of exclusivity that turns off potential viewers. A production company is lucky to have audiences talking about their series a week after a binge drop, in this day and age of rapid media consumption; The in-depth conversations and breakdowns that follow every episode’s release just aren’t as feasible anymore. Cliffhanger episodes don’t pack the same punch and, after consuming hours of content in such a way, it’s easy for a viewer to simply up and leave a series, unfinished.
The return of the weekly release brings television back to a format that creates excitement and tension, and of course builds that all-important hype that streaming services need to remain competitive. Comparing television to “inflated feature-films”, as Tavers puts it, is a disservice to the capacity for weekly episodes to build worlds, develop characters and tell stories that otherwise can’t be told in a two-hour blockbuster. And, if the weekly release is too much, you could always wait until the series’ end to binge it all at once.