The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Scandal, Sons of Anarchy, Game of Thrones, Lost, The Killing, Justified, The Walking Dead, The Shield, Orange is the New Black, Homeland, Hannibal. And on and on. Some shows were seemingly created for binge-watching. People carve out 12-24 hours over a weekend, ignore friends, family and any semblance of personal hygiene and watch episode after episode of a favorite drama, catching up on every old show from every past season. These shows offer compelling narratives, each new episode like a chapter out of a book. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, your favorite illegal site — it’s totally changed viewing habits, as has On Demand viewing and DVR on the TV.
But mostly binge watching is reserved for well-received dramas or comedies, whether it’s legendary shows that get books written about them or simply popular network shows like Scandal that draw people in with salacious tales each week.
For the most part I don’t watch many of the great TV dramas of the day. Sopranos and Game of Thrones, yes, pretty much everything else no. There’s no good reason for it; I’m not preparing a Slate pitch about being a TV contrarian. I simply haven’t been interested in devoting the time needed to fully savor the greatness of the shows.
But I binge watch like anyone else. I bought the first six seasons of Curb Your Enthusiasm and watched them in a day or two. Did the same with The Sopranos, which I didn’t watch when it aired but caught up with on Netflix — the discs, not Instant, which proves my devotion — in the summer of 2010. In the past two weeks, though, I’ve overdosed on a pair of shows that might not be the normal fare for this type of viewing: Cold Case, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
ion Television plays 12 or 13 Cold Case episodes every Friday, running them from early in the afternoon until past midnight. The same network plays Criminal Intent, as does Cloo. This past summer I finally got a DVR — yes, still miss my VCR — and I’ve certainly made the most of it. But these were the first two series I set to record every time they aired. They’re comfort viewing. There’s no great narrative arc, nothing genre-shattering about them. One was a highly ranked CBS drama for a few years, the other the least-popular of the children in the Law & Order family.
And it’s much different watching these types of shows hour after hour, day after day. Watch 10 straight hours of Cold Case and try not to walk away depressed and cursing the existence of man, and television. There’s nothing really uplifting about any of the episodes. There aren’t any humorous episodes to break things up, the way you might get an offbeat episode with one of the great dramas that dominate television. The characters don’t really grow, although they might pick up some girlfriends or a boyfriend. We learn tidbits about the main characters here and there: Scotty had a girlfriend who probably committed suicide. Lily had a bad upbringing. The fat cop had a bad marriage. The black cop’s wife was killed in a hit and run. The bald boss has a shaky relationship with his daughter. But otherwise a marathon viewing of Cold Case is 10 hours of punishment, body blow after body blow until the knockout punch is delivered with a Fleetwood Mac song serving as the sound track.
I watched the show when it originally aired on CBS and when you see it once a week you might not notice the exact formula that dominated each new episode. See them all in a row and the predictability somehow becomes both annoying and comforting.
* Start in the past. 1958. 1987. 1948. 1969. Any year. We meet our victim, while they’re alive. We see the future suspects. We see them happy or sad or confronting someone. Then we see their body. Cut to the present and something sparks a new investigation by the Cold Case gang. A mother finds an old letter that sheds light on her late son’s case. A construction site unearths two bodies. Or, in one of the stranger cases, Detective Will Jeffries helps reopen a case from 1963, when a black teenager was murdered right before the March on Washington. A 12-year-old Jeffries discovered the body…but didn’t decide to check into the case until 42 years later, when he happened to walk past the playground where he found the body. You’d think it was the type of case that maybe got him into the Cold Case unit or even onto the police force 20 years earlier but he waited until the writers could come up with a convenient time and theme for him to dig into it.
The gang meets in the Cold Case storage area, a room filled with boxes, files and, likely, rodents. The detectives sit around looking through files and making cracks about whichever year is involved. “You didn’t know what it was like for carnies back in the ’60s, Scotty. It was different times. The zipper changed everything.”
We eventually meet the suspects and after about 20 minutes the police haul one of them into the interrogation room. New suspects emerge, get dragged into the interrogation. They reveal little tidbits that bring back the previous suspect and the case is eventually solved, while The Doors or Springsteen or Dylan or the Shirelles provide the heartbreaking music.
The music rules on Cold Case and it sometimes seem the show was created as an excuse to break out the oldies.
* Everyone confesses on Cold Case. What happens to these cases when they go to court? Who knows. Are the confessions good or do defense attorneys tear them apart while Nancy Grace pounds her hand on her desk about the injustice of it all? Do they actually use any physical evidence in the trials? Often the lieutenant tells his detectives they don’t have enough evidence and need this confession. Nail the bastard.
Experts recommend against Cold Case extended use because of complications including worsening mood. When the writers gathered in the writing room, they must have gradually layered more and more depressing details as the script evolved. They tried one-upping each other. It’s not enough that it’s almost always a good person who was murdered — there aren’t really many cases involving, say, a bank robber killed by his partners. No, the victim was one step below sainthood. And it’s not just that someone murdered them over an affair. The circumstances are always excruciating.
The kid killed as Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his speech that can be heard on the radio; a teenager with Down Syndrome tricked into standing on the tracks as a train kills him, while he, yes, clutches a stuffed animal; a kidnapped boy thinks he’s escaping but is actually being told to swim across a river and he drowns; a little girl tricked by a group at school into thinking they like her, eventually pushed down a hill. Watching these episodes in a marathon leaves you feeling like you’ve run a marathon. It’s too much.
The good thing about this binge is it reignited Cold Case glances into our life. When Louise leaves a room she’ll give a slow-motion look back at me, like one of the ghosts Rush sees at the conclusion of each case. I deliver a small smile or a nod or a long blink as she disappears from view. To add to the environment, maybe I throw on Let it Be and pretend one of us got killed on a commune in the ’60s, probably because our leader wanted to sell out to the man and I wanted to stay true to the cause. It helps you appreciate life.
Last week I took Cold Case off my series manager on the DVR. With 12 episodes a day, the whole series will wrap up in a few weeks. It’s still a good show to catch once a week in reruns, maybe even do two episodes. Binge watch? By hour eight you’ll see ghosts everywhere — and be begging for the optimism of Breaking Bad.