Bob watched the first three seasons of Breaking Bad (33 episodes) in three days. Season Five starts this Sunday. (Will Bob finish season 4 in time?) Finally able to turn away from the TV, Bob speaks with Slate's Jim Pagels who says he's cheating himself by watching that many episodes that quickly.
BOB GARFIELD: This Sunday, AMC’s critically acclaimed drama Breaking Bad returns for the start of its fifth and final season.
[BREAKING BAD CLIP]:
BRYAN CRANSTON AS WALTER WHITE: You clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!
BOB GARFIELD: I was a late adopter of this show, but I made up for lost time by plowing through seasons 1 through 3 in a 33-episode bender lasting three days. Leaving all other life duties aside, I lost myself in the rush, not unlike the meth tweakers who inhabit the series. It was [WHISPERS] glorious!
I’m not alone in this sort of television binging, but on Slate this week Jim Pagels told the binging world, in no uncertain terms, to cut it out. It was an unwelcome intervention. Bloggers and columnists took after Pagels, including an npr.org piece that bemoaned the sort of commentator who sounds, quote, “increasingly crank-like when they give consumption of culture instructions.”
Pagels is 20 and is something of a traitor to a generation of Millennials that grew up with TV on demand. Jim, welcome to the show.
JIM PAGELS: Thank you for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I apologize to you. You are 20 years old. You’re a college student. You interned for Slate. It is absolutely unfair for npr.org and Time Magazine and now On the Media to try to take you down, but take you down, I will!
I’m a senior American. When I first started watching Captain Kangaroo, he was an ensign. I’ve watched TV the old way. I have binged on Breaking Bad, and it’s been one of the greatest cultural experiences of my life. Tell me what I did wrong.
JIM PAGELS: In going through all of these episodes very quickly, you kind of ruined the time in between episodes, when you can allow yourself to really put yourself in the character’s shoes and really think about that time when you can say, “If I were Walter White, what would I do, given these circumstances?”
BOB GARFIELD: A little exposition here. Walter White is the lead character of this show that is now entering its fifth season, and he is a high school chemistry teacher who winds up as one of the biggest manufacturers of methamphetamine in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Hilarity and un-hilarity ensues. And you find yourself able to relate to him between episodes.
JIM PAGELS: Definitely. When I finish an episode, I just think, “I cannot believe that Walt is in this position.” I, I agonize over the decisions that [LAUGHS] he is forced to confront.
And I feel if you immediately click Play on the next episode, a lot of the pleasure that I get of putting myself in the character’s shoes somewhat evaporates to some degree.
BOB GARFIELD: You began at least by thinking that there is some sort of generational difference in how people consume media, especially TV.
JIM PAGELS: Definitely, because most of my, my friends who watch television in these binge sessions are, you know, college students who are used to staying up until 5 in the morning. Most of the adults I know will – I didn’t realize they are aware of these means of watching television.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, thanks a lot! Yeah – [LAUGHING]
JIM PAGELS: Well, mo – most of them watch it either on, on network or they’ll get the DVDs.
BOB GARFIELD: So when you discover that people of my generation, people are just about clinically dead –
-have always binged, has this rocked your world?
JIM PAGELS: Well, it’s rather interesting because you’re so open to shifting from how you’ve watched television for 40, for 50 years to this binge-watching method. But you’re so closed to shifting back from the binge-watching to spacing out time.
Whereas people – people of my generation, for the most part, when we came of age watching television, we’ve always pretty much, for the most part, had the opportunity to, to binge-watch.
When, when I first really got into television, Hulu and watching online were first kind of starting to get formed. We never really lived in this world where if we missed an episode of Friends, “we might never see it again!”
BOB GARFIELD: You’ve probably read some Dickens. You’re an educated young guy.
JIM PAGELS: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: What are your favorites?
JIM PAGELS: Great Expectations.
BOB GARFIELD:Great Expectations, serialized.
JIM PAGELS: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: How did you read it?
JIM PAGELS: I read it all in the course of one novel. Now, I know it was written in different chapters in the newspaper.
BOB GARFIELD: So, in other words, what you did was you read in essentially one fell swoop what the contemporaneous readers had to consumer one chapter at a time. So, what do you think of your – proper way of watching Breaking Bad now, eh?
JIM PAGELS: Great Expectations, if you were to put that in film form that would be a four-hour film. Breaking Bad, if you were to put that in book form that would be 12 to 13 times the length of Great Expectations.
But I think if Great Expectations were the length of Breaking Bad, in terms of the story length, I would certainly advocate breaking it up and enjoying it piece by piece.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, I want to hear from your mouth that my way of watching Breaking Bad is as valid as yours. Come on. You don’t have to agree with my way. You got to just say, you know, some people like their corned beef with Russian dressing and some people like it with mustard. One is not better than the other.
JIM PAGELS: Now – um – well, let – let me say: So when I was watching a film like, I don’t know, Forrest Gump, a character in that movie, when they pass away at the end, I wasn’t particularly emotionally distraught because I’d only known that character for two hours.
But when I watch a show like The Wire and a character passes away at the end of season 5, I’ve spent years of my life with this character. So it really feels like a close friend of mine who I’ve known for a great deal of time has suddenly left my life.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, it’s an argument but I got to tell you, I don’t think it holds water because you can certainly build deep emotional bonds with someone in a very short period of time, if you have shared an intense experience. And baby, three years with Breaking Bad in 72 hours, that’s intense!
JIM PAGELS: I’ll certainly give you that.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah-ha, then will you give me this?
You like your corned beef maybe with mustard. I like it with Russian dressing.
JIM PAGELS: I just feel in, in one degree the corned beef is maybe a bit overcooked.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] All right. Jim, I’ve enjoyed this. JIM PAGELS: Thank you. It – it was definitely a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim Pagels is a senior at Columbia University and he is a contributor to slate.com.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Amy DiPierro and Eliza Novick-Smith, and edited this week by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Rob Grannis and Andrew Dunne.
Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts at onthemedia.org. You can also post comments there. You can find us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. And you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. I’m Bob Garfield.