How I Invented Binge Watching

September 26th, 2017 by Max Allan Collins

When I landed the Dick Tracy writing gig in 1977, I received a nice advance of $5000. As half of a young married couple, with limited financial means, I somehow convinced my wife Barb that the first thing we should do was buy a home video recorder. I bought a VCR console, which was outlandishly expensive (despite its modest 19-inch screen), an unjustifiable extravagance amplified by my brilliant choice of formats: Betamax.

But I mention this only to let you know that the Collins household (all two of us) were early adapters in the home video revolution. You need to know this to understand that you are indeed in the presence of the person who invented binge watching.

Around 1979, the Australian TV series Prisoner Cell Block H was syndicated nationally. It’s a wonderful women-in-prison series that has recently been updated into the equally wonderful Wentworth. For some reason, the local channel running the syndicated show dropped it after a few weeks – maybe it had something to do with the rampant violence and lesbianism or maybe the Aussie accents.

But I was not to be denied (I rarely am).

I approached a friend of mine in Chicago who ran a comic book shop to work out a trade deal for original comics art for his ongoing efforts to record the five-times-a-week series for me on VHS (I had one of those machines now, too). Every couple of months he would send me a box of tapes, each package containing around 20 hours of Prisoner Cell Block H. Barb and I, and my cartoonist pal and collaborator Terry Beatty, would hunker in to watch the episodes until our eyes burned. This would be on the weekend, consuming two days (allowing time out for meals and calls of nature).

We did not call it binge watching, but clearly that is what it was. The same comic book shop pal did the same for me with the 1960s-70s Dragnet, which had not yet hit Nick at Night because it didn’t exist yet. Again, these were sent to me four or five shows to a tape, as the series was being “stripped” nightly. Barb and Terry did not join me for this, not being insane, and the binging would usually only be one or two VHS tapes a night.

The first binge watching from pre-recorded tapes came with Poldark, both seasons of which Barb and I consumed in a weekend. Over the years this approach to TV watching continued with the pre-recorded Poirot tapes and beyond. During my son Nate’s college years, he would come home for the weekend when informed that a new DVD season of LEXX had arrived (my favorite science-fiction series). These would be watched, binge-style.

To this day, Barb and I binge in this fashion, although sometimes not quite as aggressively. A House of Cards season usually lasts only two days, but with mystery shows like Murdoch or Midsomer Murders, we hold ourselves to two or three a night, because things in that happily homicidal world start to blur otherwise.

One bad side-effect of binge-watching seasons of favorite shows – particularly when you haven’t followed them in their bite-size weekly episodes – is that a new season can at first seem to have nothing to do with anything you’ve ever seen before. We had that experience with two excellent series that we’ve followed from the beginning – Ripper Street and Orphan Black – both of which we chugged in a couple of gulps.

What happens is that the first episode of the season makes you wonder if you skipped a season, but by the second episode, it begins to come back – especially when two of you are watching, as Barb and I will prompt each other as memories come floating or sometimes bursting back.

So I’ll comment briefly on a couple of series we’ve binged of late.

Poldark Season Three. While Barb and I are devoted fans of the original series, this remake is equally faithful to the books and has the production values of a fairly big-budget feature film, with breathtaking Cornwall location work. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson do very well as Ross and Demelza, and again the original Poldark, Robin Ellis, is back for a nice scene…a fine show of respect for the original classic series.

Murdoch Mysteries Season 10 – For some while now, Murdoch has been running 18 episodes. This charming, often amusing mystery series – which still plays as a turn of the century CSI – likes to bring characters back, and because those characters have appeared in single episodes (not story arcs), it can be tough to recall them. Also, we always have a little trouble getting used to the non-regulars in the casts because the Canadian acting style can have a dinner theater vibe…but you do get used to it. And the regulars are strong and very comfy in their roles – Yannick Bisson as Murdoch, Helene Joy as Dr. Julia Ogden, Jonny Harris as Constable George Crabtree, and in particular Thomas Craig as Inspector Thomas Brackenreid, who recalls Gene Hunt in Life on Mars. The tenth season begins jokey and at first seems weak, but by mid-point it’s playing well, even revealing itself as a particularly strong season, getting more serious and darker as it goes.

Orphan Black Season Five. Orphan Black shares a charming recurring actor – Kristian Brunn – with Murdoch. Otherwise the shows have little in common, and the guest casts never have that dinner theater vibe. Two things are particularly outstanding about this series. First, it’s one of those convoluted, complex science-fiction/fantasy series in the X-Files mode that seems to be getting so ever more complicated, you suspect it doesn’t know where it’s going (Lost, anyone?). Well, Season Five is the final season of Orphan Black and everything from the previous four is paid off with thought and emotion, and no small amount of clever plotting. Virtually everybody of any importance is back from the run of the show and loose ends are not in abundance.

Second, lead Tatiana Maslany may be the best actress of her generation, or maybe several generations, as she portrays the various “clone” sisters who are the orphans of the title, each one distinct in look, mannerism and overall characterization. She is a wonder (and the technical expertise of the “sisters” interacting is mindboggling). Particularly interesting, and rewarding, is the decision of co-creators John Fawcett and Graeme Manson to wrap up the exciting, often frightening storyline midway through the final episode, and follow it with a “three months later” half-an-episode that suggests where the characters are heading and how they are, or are not, dealing with what they’ve been through.

Ripper Street Season Five. Ripper Street, set in Whitechappel just after Jack the Ripper’s reign, is like a much, much darker Murdoch Mysteries. Lead Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Reid brings modern police methods to London’s most barbaric area with the help of his American forensics expert, Adam Rothenberg as Captain Homer Jackson. Like Murdoch, Ripper Street appears initially to have been born out of the popularity of CSI, but has outlived its inspiration, and surpassed its accomplishments. Creator Richard Warlow wrote around two-thirds of the episodes (early seasons ran 8 episodes, later one 6) and he does not stint on wild plot twists and grittily horrific crimes, but the characters are so real and compelling – and not always admirable – that you will likely stick with them.

Orphan Black runs 50 episodes, and Ripper Street 37, so binging on their complete runs is doable, and will not provide the confusion that those of us doing so a season at time can experience. Murdoch is well over 100 episodes now, so binge-watching can take planning and patience.

So, yes, now that you ask – I did indeed invent binge-watching, with Barb’s help, and Terry’s.

You’re welcome.

* * *

Hey, I bet you didn’t know Road to Perdition came from a comic book. You do? Check this out anyway.


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9 Responses to “How I Invented Binge Watching”

  1. Terry Beatty says:

    I think all of Prisoner Cell Block H can be found on YouTube now. I have resisted rewatching. Too damn busy. And too many other new shows to binge.

  2. Linda Donaldson Grim says:

    I am also a binge watcher. With the new seasons coming to Netflix and Amazon Prime, I am going to try to limit my watching so they last longer. You noticed the word try. :)

  3. Gary R Bush says:

    I agree that Tatiana Maslany is the greatest actress of her generation. We never missed an episode. I hope for great things to come for Tatiana.

  4. Tim Field says:

    Let me join in the hosannas for Tatiana Maslany. My wife and I just finished the series and were glad to learn that Tatiana is eligible for the next round of Emmy awards for her Orphan Black role.

  5. John Hocking says:

    Hey Mr. Collins, off topic a bit. A couple years back you mentioned your fondness for a number of 1960’s Euro-spy James Bond imitations and named the OSS 117 series as a favorite.
    Check this out…

    The review site DVD Beaver says the blu-ray transfers are, if not awesome, pretty darn good.
    This looks like such a leap beyond the gray market and You Tube viewings I’ve been able to see that I thought it was worth a shout-out.

    How’s Quarry doing?

  6. Mike Doran says:

    I think I mentioned in an earlier comment that I didn’t believe in binge-watching.
    That said, lately I’ve been giving it a try of sorts.

    A couple of weeks back, MeTV ran “5”, the opener of 77 Sunset Strip‘s final season, on the consecutive nights of that week.
    Using my trusty DVR, I managed to butt together the five hours into just under three for a “continuous” story.
    Here, I show my age – which, as of today (September 30) is 67.
    Somehow, in the passage of time, I’d forgotten the heavy reliance on expository dialog that old shows had in multi-part stories.
    Most of this was given in Efrem Zimbalist’s voice-over narration, although there was no explanation given for Stu Bailey’s sudden loss of station (and manners, comes to that).
    MeTV, or Warner Archives, or someone, did lots of cutting here – specifically the pre-curtain call at the start for the platoon of cameo guest stars (only retained in Part 1).
    Not much to add here – there were a couple of nod-off moments about midway through (thank God for DVR reverse), and the Bailey personality reversal took a bit of getting used to, but …
    … well, it was a new 77SS, which as it happened nobody in 1963 wanted, but there you are.
    I am watching the “new” old shows, which I gather haven’t been seen anywhere since their original airings.
    I am nothing if not open-minded.

    I’m feeling a little fogged in, so I’l back off until tomorrow, maybe.
    ‘Til Then …

  7. Mike Doran says:

    In re my “new” binge-watch experiment:

    For many years, I was a devout fan of The Edge Of Night, for many years the only daily soap that was geared to mystery and suspense.
    It was largely an off-and-on fanship, due to such inconveniences as education and employment.
    However, technology came to my rescue, with the invention of the home videocassette recorder.
    Starting in 1981, I was able to tape Edge on a daily basis (along with several other ABC soaps) to watch at my nighttime leisure.
    Forward to 1984, when ABC dropped Edge, to my deep resentment.
    A few years after that, the USA cable network began late-night reruns of Edge, which I couldn’t watch because my family didn’t have cable. I was still resentful. An office friend who did have cable offered to tape the late-night Edges for me, which helped a little, but sometimes he’d miss a night out of a week, which was frustrating …

    Super fast-forward to the present day, and my way-belated discovery that YouTube has some folks who have taken it upon themselves to post old episodes of Edge Of Night, dating from early in 1979 to the end of the run in December of 1984.
    When I first found the Edge shows, I spent a lot of time trying to find specific shows; I was concentrating on special events like the solutions of whodunits, or early appearances by people like Julianne Moore or Kate Capshaw (or even Wallace Shawn, comes to that), or the occasional celebrity cameo (Dick Cavett did a string of them, very late in the run).
    Eventually, I came to the realization that I should really be trying to following the actual stories, over the weeks or months that it took to set them up – by Henry Slesar, and later by Lee Sheldon.
    We’re talking about hundreds of episodes here – half-hours (without commercials it’s really about 22 minutes, give or take), but it does pile up, doesn’t it?
    Any The Hoo, I am about to seriously engage in this perilous endeavor – maybe about a week’s worth at a time (two if the stories hold up).
    I’m still trying to find the right place to start in 1979; the main storyline then was about the making of a Gothic horror movie, with guest stars Kim Hunter, Farley Granger, Arnold Moss, and Robert Emhardt. The problem is trying to find just how far back the “archive” goes; the added complication is the possibility that episodes here and there might be missing – but that was a problem I had when Edge was in first run, so there too.

    If you’ve stayed with me this far, about to give me up as truly hopeless –
    – may I make a request?
    Just go to YouTube and check out The Edge Of Night for August 26, 1983.
    Just that one episode, twenty-two minutes total.
    See what you think of what’s there.
    If you want to tell me what a fool I am, you can stick your answer back here where no one will see it. No harm, no foul.
    And that’s my take on binge-watching – although if I stick this out, it’ll be more like a bender …

  8. Max Allan Collins says:

    I already had ordered the OSS 117 set, though I had all but two of them on blu-ray from overseas.

    Mike, I remember EDGE OF NIGHT, but never really followed it. Most significant thing about it is that it was originally the PERRY MASON radio show, and them became EDGE OF NIGHT when MASON went to TV (if I’m remembering right).

  9. Mike Doran says:

    Since you (sort of) asked …

    What happened was that CBS wanted to do Perry Mason as a daily half-hour TV soap.
    Procter & Gamble, the radio sponsor, was going into TV in a big way; they already had two regular soaps (Love Of Life and As The World Turns) ready to go and wanted Mason as the third in the set.
    Erle Stanley Gardner vetoed this; he wanted Mason as a prime-time hour, which his own company would produce and control.
    CBS gave Gardner what he wanted, but P%G still wanted to do a daily lawyer soap, so they told Irving Vendig, the head writer of the radio Mason, to create a same-only-different TV show that they could run themselves.
    Vendig came up with The Edge Of Night, the medium-size city of Monticello (modeled on Cincinnati, P&G’s headquarters), and crusading DA/defense lawyer Mike Karr, who was the one constant for 28 years (three actors, no waiting).

    Fun Facts:
    The first Mike Karr was, of course, John Larkin, who’d played Perry Mason on radio.
    When Larkin left to go primetime, his replacement was Larry Hugo, a NY-based actor who held the role for just under a decade.
    (MAC: You might remember Hugo from the premiere episode of City Of Angels; he was the guy who got killed off in the first few minutes of “The November Plan”. Sic transit gloria mundi.)
    When Larry Hugo left to do a Shakespeare tour with Dame Judith Anderson, the 3rd and final Mike Karr became Forrest Compton, whose best-known role to that point was as the commanding Marine colonel on Gomer Pyle.
    Almost everything on YouTube comes from Compton’s tenure on Edge; the bulk of that comes from after Edge moved to ABC at the end of 1975.
    There is a single clip of the cast listing that appeared at the close of a 1966 CBS episode, with some surprising names to be found therein.
    But any of you who read this can look that up for yourselves …
    (Ain’t I a stinker?)