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  • Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix

    Julianna Margulies, left with Matt Czuchry, stars in "The Good Wife," which is better seen from the series' start to learn the story line and nuances. It's in Season 4, but like other series worth catching up on, its earlier seasons are available. Eike Schroter CBS

  • Kevin Spacey stars in "House of Cards." Netflix has made the first season's 13 episodes available in their entirety – perfect for binge watchers. The second season has already been ordered. Melinda Sue Gordon Netflix

  • PBS

    AMC Bryan Cranston stars in "Breaking Bad," an edgy and popular series that tells the tale of a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine maker. For many the show is addictive.

  • Showtime

    Lena Dunham, above, is star, writer and director of the HBO series "Girls." Season 2 began recently, but to get the full experience, including the series' storytelling climb, it's recommended to start with Season 1. JoJo Whilden HBO

  • AMC

    Lena Dunham, above, is star, writer and director of the HBO series "Girls." Season 2 began recently, but to get the full experience, including the series' storytelling climb, it's recommended to start with Season 1. JoJo Whilden HBO

  • PBS Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary, one of the characters that viewers find so compelling on PBS' "Downton Abbey."

'Binge watching' TV series a widespread phenomenon

Published: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8AANDE
Last Modified: Monday, Feb. 4, 2013 - 12:07 pm

It's a not-so-pretty name for a highly enjoyable experience.

"Binge watching" is the common term for watching a season or the entire run of a TV show in one or a few sittings.

The practice now has a name because it has moved beyond sci-fi nerds and stoners to the greater populace.

Suburban moms approach the third season of "Downton Abbey" by first inhaling Seasons 1 and 2. Teenagers consume all of "Lost" on iPads. Otherwise responsible middle-aged husbands hide in their basements for days to stream the five-season run of "The Wire."

Marathon viewing is so widespread that jokes about it sell easily, like the bit on IFC's "Portlandia" in which a couple sit down for an episode of "Battlestar Galactica" before a party, then miss the party and days of work because of binge- watching episodes.

"It's a trend, more and more, that viewers are moving to," Beau Willimon, writer and showrunner for the new Netflix original drama "House of Cards," said last week. "They are experiencing television shows more often as an entire season. They want to watch (episodes) when they want to watch them, where they want to watch them and on what device they want to watch them."

Based on a British series, the Washington, D.C.-set hourlong political drama "House of Cards" carries the prestige of an HBO series. It stars Kevin Spacey as the House majority whip and Robin Wright as his Lady Macbeth-esque spouse. David Fincher ("The Social Network") directed the first two episodes.

But instead of unfolding over three months on HBO, "Cards" is available in its entirety, today, to Netflix customers. All 13 episodes can be streamed instantly via the online service.

"Netflix is smart enough to acknowledge (the trend) and exploit it," Willimon said of marathon viewing habits. "We are proud to be the first to deliver it that way. We certainly won't be the last."

Netflix also has been a primary enabler of binge watching by offering entire seasons of shows for streaming and then availing its service to most devices, from iPads to Blu-ray players capable of streaming Internet video to televisions.

Before streaming became common, binge-watching often was associated with DVD box sets of premium- cable shows. People who wanted to see "The Sopranos" without paying monthly HBO fees would wait for a season on DVD, then watch episodes back to back.

Binge watching still is more likely to occur with shows containing bigger, overarching story lines than with strictly episodic series. Shows with longer threads practically beg you to continue to the next episode, even if it is 1 a.m. and there's work in the morning.

Binge-watch shows also tend to lack a satisfying entry point at any place other than the series' start. Starting "Two and a Half Men" in Season 4 probably would work fine, because the characters and situation are so transparent. But try introducing yourself to the meth-dealing hell of AMC's "Breaking Bad" in Season 4. It's impenetrable.

"Cards" showrunner Willimon said he envisioned Season 1 as a film playing out over 13 episodes. Because Netflix committed to two seasons, or 26 episodes, up front – a move Willimon called "extraordinary" – the creative team went further in planning, he said, enabling the introduction of moments in Season 1 and pinpoint when to call back to them in Season 2.

"Cards" might someday join the binge-watched elite led by "The Wire," "Friday Night Lights," "Mad Men," "Breaking Bad" and "Sons of Anarchy."

So could some other current shows listed below. These shows were chosen because they have engendered awards or controversy, or offer series-longs arcs that encourage marathon viewing.

And remember: Binge watching is only unhealthy if you consider exuberant freedom of choice unhealthy.

Catch up with these

• "Girls" (9 p.m. Sundays, HBO): Lena Dunham, 26-year-old star, writer and director of this series about four young New York women, either gets overpraised as the voice of her generation or trashed as unworthy of having her own show. So you know she's struck a cultural nerve.

Dunham takes her shirt off when you wish she wouldn't on "Girls," steers her character, Hannah, toward narcissistic life choices and greedily gives herself all the best lines.

She also shows superb comic timing. Her delivery is not deadpan, exactly, or even disaffected. It's more like monochromatic. Whatever it is, it's all hers, and it's hilarious and raw.

Season 2 started a few weeks ago. It would be fine to start the series tonight, but it would not be the full experience. The full experience involves witnessing the steady climb of Season 1, which started weak but rebounded spectacularly.

Plus, you can learn more about Hannah's artist boyfriend Adam (the marvelous Adam Driver), who is charismatic and insightful between bouts of creepiness. (Season 1 is available to HBO subscribers on cable On Demand and is out on DVD and streaming).

• "The Good Wife" (8 p.m. Sundays, Channel 13): This legal drama usually presents and then wraps up a case each week. But stories can span several episodes, and the series is too well-developed as a whole for a viewer to come in cold to its fourth and current season and understand its nuances.

Start with Season 1 to fully appreciate Alicia's (Julianna Margulies) progression from wronged political wife to self-assured attorney and ambivalent political wife.

Margulies has offered six smiles during the series' run, by my count, and each one is gratifying. The women of "Good Wife" are polar opposites of those HBO "Girls" and their compulsion to broadcast every feeling. Margulies, Christine Baranski (law-firm partner Diane) and Archie Panjabi (investigator Kalinda) play it close to the vest, and are more intriguing for it. (Seasons 1-3 are out on DVD and streaming, and earlier Season 4 episodes are streaming on

• "Homeland": Showtime just concluded Season 2 of this Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning, edge-of-your-seat series about an Marine (Damian Lewis)- turned-terrorist-turned congressman and the scary-smart, bipolar CIA agent (Claire Danes) who hunts/ loves him. It was a wild season that was, binge-watch-speaking, more addictive than any other show.

Showtime subscribers can see Season 2 on On Demand. But do not attempt to watch it until you have seen Season 1. It will not make sense. It barely makes sense if you have seen Season 1. (Seasons 1 and 2 on On Demand. Season 1 also available on DVD and streaming).

• "Game of Thrones," HBO: This is one to take on faith and on the recommendation of friends. Full disclosure: I watched the series' premiere episode and found it silly.

But apparently this sprawling series based on George R.R. Martin's fantasy novels, with its family intrigue, incest and tales of kingdoms won and lost, is quality programming. It certainly has an avid following, and Peter Dink- lage won an Emmy for his performance as Tyrion Lannister, crafty but compassionate younger brother to the queen.

Perhaps a marathon viewing of Seasons 1 and 2 is in order before Season 3 starts in March. (Seasons 1 and 2 are available to HBO subscribers on On Demand; also on DVD and streaming)

• "Justified," 10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX: It's possible to climb on board this well-written, well-acted crime drama during its fourth and current season without having to ask a lot of questions. But knowing more about what makes Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) so tough, wry and capable would probably enhance the viewing experience, as would a greater consciousness of how charismatic crime boss Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) became so self-aware. (Seasons 1-3 are available on DVD and streaming).

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer

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