Once upon a time, all of America was bound together by our TV culture.
There were three networks (four if you counted PBS, which no one did), and those three networks aired new prime-time shows in the fall, reruns in the summer and ended all programming at 1:30 a.m. Television was a shared experience; if you watched TV at all, you were seeing what everyone else was seeing, and you could all waste your day talking about it instead of working.
Thank goodness those days are long gone.
Now there are so many channels, so many outlets, so many ways to watch programming, there's literally no way to see it all. That doesn't mean we won't try, however, and that often means attempting to digest as much of a program as quickly as possible in order to squeeze it into schedules we've convinced ourselves are full. Yes, we're talking binge-watching.
The practice of burning off as many episodes of any given show in rapid succession has its roots in trying to catch up on past seasons of a new favorite in time to discuss current plotlines. (That's the reason you should have been overdosing on Walter White's meth-cooking exploits on Breaking Bad the past month or so.) Why bother waiting week after week for plots to unfold, sitting through commercials and having to wait for character development when one open weekend can get you completely caught up on that must-see everyone tells you about?
Lately, however, binge-watching has become a sort of replacement for network viewing. Don't want to watch reality shows all summer long? Check into Fringe, now that Fox has ended the show and you can make a 100-episode commitment. Giving up on some hospital drama that's lost its luster and have some free time? May as well watch an episode of Downton Abbey every night for four weeks.
Binge-watching has its problems, sure. It's rare for all your friends to be on the same page when discussing plotlines. Sometime the nuances of a show are missed, only caught on repeat viewings. And what do you do when the show is over, gone all too soon, like a brief but intense teenage romance?
But considering your kids don't even watch TV on a TV anymore, you really should embrace the idea that gobbling six episodes of Modern Family on your Kindle every night instead of following the current How I Met Your Mother is largely the way of things now. Viewership is changing, and overdosing on programming is the herald of this new age of entertainment.
We're Americans; overconsumption is our most cherished tradition. But even competitive eaters don't mind some suggestions about what's good at the buffet.
With that in mind, here are a few shows you may have missed that are best for binge-watching, some that aren't worth the effort and a few delicious morsels that don't seem appetizing at first, or didn't make it onto nearly enough plates. Enjoy responsibly. — Joshua Gillin
Get caught up
You've still got time to get back into the national discussion before these shows return to the airwaves. — Jay Cridlin
Breaking Bad (Sunday, AMC)
Some might say it's a fool's errand to try to catch up on 54 episodes of an intense hourlong drama in one weekend. To them, we say … have you even seen Breaking Bad?
Where to see it: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix. AMC will also run a marathon of the first half of Season 5 starting at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Sons of Anarchy (Sept. 10, FX)
Maybe you saw Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim and wondered where he's been these last five years. Maybe you just think, I need more of Ron Perlman's jawbone in my life. Either way, you have a few weeks before this biker-gang drama's sixth (and reportedly penultimate) season kicks off.
Where to see it: Amazon (Seasons 1-4 free on Amazon Prime), iTunes, Netflix (Seasons 1-4)
Scandal (Oct. 3, ABC)
The addictive political soap/thriller was a breakout hit in its second season, as you're no doubt aware from all your friends breathlessly tweeting about it on Thursday nights. This also gives you plenty of time to see why Kerry Washington more than deserved her Lead Actress in a Drama nomination before the Emmys air on Sept. 22.
Where to see it: Amazon, iTunes, Netflix (Season 1), Hulu (select episodes free, full Season 2 via Hulu Plus), ABC.com (select episodes)
Doctor Who (Nov. 23, BBC America)
Okay, so you're never going to get caught up on 50 freaking years of Doctors and Daleks. But the epic sci-fi series' 50th anniversary special will be a momentous one, featuring multiple incarnations of the United Kingdom's favorite Time Lord. Outgoing Doctor Matt Smith, former Doctor David Tennant and heretofore unknown Doctor John Hurt will share the screen in this special episode. Our suggestion: Limit yourselves to the seven seasons starring Tennant, Smith and Christopher Eccleston, which began in 2005, and you'll be plenty caught up by the time the newly announced 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi, debuts in the show's 2013 Christmas special.
Where to see it: Amazon (Seasons 1 through the first half of Season 7 free on Amazon Prime), iTunes, Netflix (Seasons 1-6)
Hannibal (2014, NBC)
A procedural crime thriller about Dr. Hannibal Lecter had no right to succeed in 2013, and yet it received surprising critical acclaim thanks to creator Bryan Fuller's striking visuals. Because only 13 episodes aired on NBC this spring, catching up will feel like diving into a quality cable series.
Where to see it: Amazon, iTunes, Hulu (three episodes), NBC.com (three episodes)
Worth every minute
People have been telling you for years to dive into one of these acclaimed series. These people were telling the truth. — Joshua Gillin and Jay Cridlin
Friday Night Lights
You don't have to care about football or shows about teens to enjoy this emotionally resonant portrait of a Texas town addicted to, united by and ultimately divided by high school football. All you need is an appreciation for hypnotic cinematography; achingly beautiful soundscapes; and some of the most honest acting ever to air on television. At its heart, Friday Night Lights is a show about people who care too much to let go of what they love, which is why, despite years of dismal ratings, it hung on for five seasons. When Kyle Chandler upset Mad Men's Jon Hamm for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 2011, all the Friday Night Lights fans out there were thinking: Attaboy, Coach Taylor. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.
Where to see it: Amazon (free on Amazon Prime), Netflix, iTunes, Hulu Plus (Seasons 4-5)
The Sci-Fi Channel saw fit to resurrect this 1978-79 series about a caravan of spacebound humans on the run from a robot army as a real drama and not a Star Wars knockoff, turning the flotilla of survivors into a microcosm of every social, political, ethnic, religious and romantic problem known to modern audiences, complete with the Cylons as a cypher for our sins being visited upon us. The 2004-09 version is now legend among geeks and non-geeks alike, thanks to an ability to make a courtroom argument as white-knuckled as a space battle. What other show could make its viewers empathize with terrorist cells the way this one did? The series that, despite the yawping from the unimaginative, ended exactly as it should have. You'll see what we mean.
Where to see it: Amazon (free on Amazon Prime), Netflix, Hulu, iTunes
Look, you definitely want to cross this one off your list, if only to shut up those people who are all like, "Oh, my god, you haven't seen The Wire? Sheeeeeeeeit, you HAVE to see The Wire. It's the greatest show of all time." They're right, of course, but man, are those people annoying. Besides, The Wire is so dense and complex that binge-watching might be the only way to comprehend the plot. It'll probably take you a couple of viewings just to understand Snoop.
Where to see it: Amazon, iTunes, HBO Go
It's not that these shows weren't (or aren't) good. It's just that binge-watching them now may not be as fun as it was to watch them live. — Joshua Gillin and Jay Cridlin
The best thing about Lost was the post-show water-cooler debates it inspired among fans ("What's up with the polar bear? What's up with the numbers? What's up with the smoke monster?"). In so many ways, Lost helped spawn the instant-recap culture that still drives a lot of TV fandom online. But now that the show has ended — and, let's face it, many of us still have no idea what exactly was going on by the end — it's hard to justify devoting some 100 hours just to get caught up on the dominant cultural debate of 2005. Watching Lost unfold in real time was an eye-opening (and, yes, occasionally eye-rolling) experience, and that's not something you're going to recapture in a binge-watching culture.
Where to (not) see it: Amazon (free on Amazon Prime), iTunes, Netflix, Hulu Plus
Kiefer Sutherland's resurgence began in November 2001 in a 24-episode story arc that followed the day of Jack Bauer, a counter-terrorism agent thwarting an assassination plot on a black president, presented largely in real time. After learning they could fudge the timing, writers took Jack on a breakneck journey that involved torturing suspects, Islamic terrorists, bioweapon attacks, a nuclear bomb going off in L.A., a shadow government and Jack getting to shoot his boss in the face. It was critical, every-week viewing until Season 5 in 2006, when a vital main character is assassinated and Fox proved that being Jack Bauer's friend is possibly the most dangerous occupation on Earth. By the time loyal viewers stumbled through a prison sentence, a writer's strike, an awful Katee Sackhoff subplot and a move to New York, we were all left wondering why Jack didn't just stay in hiding after faking his own death.
Where to (not) see it: Amazon (free on Amazon Prime, except for the 24: Redemption miniseries), Netflix, iTunes
Shonda Rhimes' drama about surgical interns, a 2005 midseason replacement, used to focus on fascinating medical cases and the ethical and emotional dilemmas that surrounded them. Somewhere over the course of its nine seasons, the prescription changed entirely. The latest season featured a cast of self-absorbed misery junkies, alternately obsessed with some arcane, self-serving aspect of their professional lives and being willfully forgetful about the feelings of the others around them. The characters talk over each other, not to each other, making it woefully difficult for the viewer to care what happens to anyone. After the myriad disasters that inexplicably fall upon this cursed medical facility, it's a wonder ABC hasn't yet fitted it for a toe tag.
Where to (not) see it: Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, some episodes on ABC.com