Tag Archives: Binge Watching

Pandemic Binge Watching and the Big Three Channels

Let me just get out the obligatory “TV was a lot different when I was young” before we move on.  I tell my daughter about the days before DVRs or VCRs, when you had to be there and ready to watch at a specific time in order to see a show or movie.  A whole weekly magazine was devoted to the TV schedule, which was kind of amazing logistically because the channels were different in every major media market.  The LA TV Guide was useless in Chicago or New York.

And don’t even get me started on the pre-cable days and fiddling with an antenna to get the TV signal.  And I am just old enough to remember pre-solid state TVs, where you had to turn them on and allow a couple of minutes for them to warm up before a clear picture would resolve itself on the screen.  Or a fuzzy picture, if the antenna wasn’t just right.  It was a different time.

Today we have a Roku Stick that juts out from the side of our 46″ LCD TV.  I bought that back in December because there was demand in our house for the Disney+ channel and the PlayStation 3, our streaming device up until that moment, was just seconds from being completely out of support, so no new apps were being made for it.  And, when I looked at it a couple month later, all the old apps were dead too.  So it was just in time.

And, as the pandemic has gone on, we have spent more and more time streaming content over the Roku and very little time watching traditional commercial television.  I’d cancel the cable TV service, but Comcast would raise my monthly charge to just have internet.  So we just leave it there, idle, though I may go in and trim some features, like the extra we pay for HD channels.  The Comcast Xfinity HD compression algorithm was changed a couple years back and what you get now looks pretty bad.  If it even qualified as 720p I’d be surprised.  Maybe sports will come back and we’ll want to watch something like that.

Anyway, this will be a few posts running down of the channels in order of length and depth of investment in each, and I will start with the big three staples of our house currently.

HBO, or Home Box Office back in the day, is probably the first premium channel I ever ran into.  Our friend Gary had a bootleg HBO receiver on their antenna mast back in the day when it was broadcast via line-of-sight transmission from Mount Umunhum into the valley.  It was just movies back then, and the occasional filler 30 minutes of Video Jukebox, which might have pre-dated MTV.

I have subscribed to HBO as part of cable or satellite or streaming a number of times over the years, and I always end up cancelling it after a while.  They never have many movies that interest me, and for a long time they only had a few shows, and none of this was on demand.  But that has changed.

Upside:

Usually has a couple of recent release movies we might want to watch.

Has a deep field of good TV series that they have produced on which to binge like The Wire, Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Succession, Generation Kill, and a few others.  I could watch the first two seasons of The Wire on repeat.

Downside:

Priced at a premium tier.

Like a lot of movie channels, there are a bunch of movies you’ll skip right past because you’ve seen them or know you’ll never watch them.  Oh, and they come and go monthly, so you have to keep an eye on that.

Has some series that are decent but which got cancelled quickly, so you have a few episodes and a longing for more.

The UI of the app is not very sophisticated, though I will admit that the UI of none of the streaming apps are ideal.  We are once again up against the limitations of screen real estate and exactly how big things need to be to be able to see/read them from the couch.  But HBO, for all its prestige of being one of the elder services, is behind the pack when it comes to features, at least when compared to the two services below.

Has clung to the old school “episode every week” format for new show content.  This works for topical shows, like Last Week Tonight, and worked during Game of Thrones, when everybody was talking about that at the water cooler on Monday, but that was an exception, not the rule.  Most of the time it feels like they drag shows out week by week because they have nothing else new coming and just want to keep you subscribed.  Our general house rule is to let a series get at least six episodes in so we can watch them in pairs, though it is better still if we just wait until the season is over and watch at our own pace.

I also remain confused as to their branding.  I have HBO Now, or I did, but there is now HBO Max, which I cannot have because they are in a fight with Roku, though I can get HBO Max if I cancel HBO Now and subscribe to HBO via Hulu.  Or something like that.  I am not sure what I am missing by not having HBO Max.  Also, wasn’t there HBO Go for a while?

Current Status: Still subscribed.  Waiting for Lovecraft County to get further along.

Our original stop for binge watching, back when Netflix used to just send disks through the mail.  We burned through seasons of the show 24 three disks at a time.  With no commercials and using the chapter advance to get past the “previously” and the credits, each hour long episode boiled down to under 30 minutes, so we would watch a disk a night.

Eventually Netflix managed to get to the “net” part of its name and started streaming back before that was much of a thing.

Anyway, fast forward to today where Netflix is your prime location for streaming old episodes of Friends, a show we only used to watch because it was adjacent to Seinfeld at one point and the once place where you can watch Tiger King.

Upside:

Overall, lots of stuff available.

Lots of new and original content showing up all the time.  When they drop a new series, it is all episodes on the table, ready to binge.  And they have hit the mark multiple times with shows like Stranger Things and Tiger King.

Top of the class when it comes to features like “skip the ‘previously’ segment” at the start of a series show and “skip credits” so you can get straight into the content.

Tries really hard to flag content you might like based on your viewing, and isn’t that bad at it.  And it allows you to make profiles so when your daughter binges anime on her profile you don’t end up with the weeabo selection on your own recommendations.

Downside:

Has, over time, dramatically decreased the amount of third party content they have licensed.  There are still some good third party items in the mix, and of course Friends, but they are more about their own stuff these days.

A lot of their own content isn’t that great.  Some of it is okay.  I was good with a pass through once on things that otherwise got mixed reviews, but it can be really hit and miss.  A bunch of it is foreign television that has been dubbed in English and branded as “Netflix Original” and dumped into the listings.  Some dubbed stuff is okay, though a dubbed show really has to have a strong underlying plot for that not to become a distraction.

Really wants stuff playing on your screen.  The only service where I will leave something selected, walk away to do something, and come back to find myself starting episode three already.  You can tone that down some in the settings, but they don’t make it easy.

Current Status: Still subscribed, waiting for the next bit of binge fodder to drop while I get through Parks & Recreation.

Amazon Prime is the streaming service we sort of backed into because we had Amazon Prime for free delivery and suddenly it included a video service.

Upside:

Has content for Prime members, which occasionally has a movie I want to watch when I want to watch it.  I caught The Battle of Britain the other day.

Continues to ramp up some decent original content like The Man in the High Castle, The Boys, and Hanna.  If you’re going to dub something, Comrade Detective is how you do it.

Has caught up to Netflix on the “skip this” features without trying to start playing video at you every time you pause the cursor for a moment.  Also, just added profiles.

Can subscribe to a variety of other services like Showtime or Starz in their interface.  Also has a huge library of pay per view titles in its catalog.

Downside:

Not a lot of selection when compared to Netflix when you consider the price differential.  But maybe the free shipping takes a bite out of the content options.

Not as easy to navigate as Netflix.  Not that Netflix is great, but on Prime everything is smaller and less intrusive and feels like they are not trying as hard.  Prime also lists out each season of a show as its own entry, which feels like they are trying to look like they have more content than they actually do.

Searching for titles will lead you to a lot of things that are pay per view.  This sets it apart from the other two where everything you find on the service you can watch without additional payment.

The last time I tried a pay per view movie I had to get up from the TV and go into my office to order it on my computer before I could watch it on the TV.  I guess that keeps down the accidental purchases.

Some spotty or indifferent shows.  Also clings to the “one episode a week” idea of content deliver, except when it gets impatient and suddenly releases half a season, the doles out the rest more slowly.

Status: Still subscribed for free shipping, Twitch games, and other stuff, while finishing up Counterpart and waiting for all the episodes of The Boys season two to become available.

Next time I’ll look at Hulu, Disney+, and Starz.

Pandemic Binge Watching Part One

The Covid-19 pandemic has kept many of us at home for more than four months now.  All that staying home has led to a demand for entertainment.

Oddly, video games haven’t proven quite the outlet for me that you might imagine.  The problem is that I have also been working from home for more than four months, so I spend 8-10 hours a day sitting at my desk in front of a computer.  When work is over, I often feel strongly that I need to get up and go somewhere else in the house rather than switching over to play a game at that very same desk.

So, for my wife and I, with no movies, no going out to dinner, and not even any sports, the television series has become the entertainment outlet for us.  We are subscribed to a few streaming services which offer us up full seasons of shows, and so we have spent time binging on those.  I’m often tempted to write something up about each as we finish them, but that means going back to my desk again, so I have been slacking on that.

Now, however, I am going to sum up some of what we watched both as a public service as well as a reminder to myself as to what we have watched.  This is in some sort of order close to chronologically related to when we watched them, but there was some overlap.  The bullet points are the title and the service on which they are currently available.

That is a three-fer right there.  Based on the books by Philippa Gregory, they cover the War of the Roses and its aftermath, spanning a time frame that covers a few of Shakespeare plays.  They represent and ongoing story, though each series was filmed independently and is a complete story on its own.

A good set of tales, if not fully historical at times, they point out the key problem of the War of the Roses, which was too damn many people named Henry, Edward, Elizabeth, and Margaret.  Seriously, at one point I think there were four Henrys, three Edwards, two Elizabeths, and two Margarets in play, and more came and went.  We had to pause to establish which Henry or whoever was being referenced at times.

Also, a completely new set of actors takes over for each series, which can be a bit of a test when the same characters can span series.  Still, some good fun, if you like that era.  I enjoyed watching the 1995 film version of Richard III after this to see how many of the same people were treated by the two perspectives. (Also, that movie is a must for the casting alone.)

Starz had a $25 for six months deal on their streaming service, and these three made that worth the money.

Good for: Tolerant history buffs, people named Henry, and people keen for drinking games related to spotting actors from other shows.

More historical tales, this one is a comedic look at Catherine the Great and her early time in the court of the Czar.  I had to double check that this was a US produced series, as we’re not usually that big on European history that doesn’t involve us directly.  Very funny at times, often crude, and feeling no need to adhere to any particular historical accuracy, it can be quite a ride.  The main problem was it felt like about 8 episodes worth of content in a 10 episode series, so it flags a bit towards the end.  Still, I was good with it.  Huzzah!

Good for: Really tolerant history buffs and people who kind of miss Blackadder.

I don’t think I have laughed out loud as much in a long time as I did during the first two seasons of this series.  Hank Azaria’s character is relentless.  This humor is often crude and rarely strays from sex, drugs, alcohol, and his character flaws.  Very much not for children.  Gets serious at the end of season two and into season three, then completely flies off into a bizarro future history in season four, but is still pretty damn funny.

Good for: Hank Azaria fans, baseball fans, and anybody who might like a Filipino knock-off of Hart to Hart.

A solid interpretation of the novel by Nick Hornby, transplanted to New York City in the current era, so mix tapes are out and play lists are in.  Vinyl though, that is eternal.

The cast is very good and the story flows well enough.  My main problem is that this series exists in the same universe as the 2000 film version of the novel which is a favorite of mine.  The series seems tame and a bit flat compared to the manic energy and comedic rhythm of Jack Black and John Cusack in the film.  Also, the characters in the TV series are not even half as obsessed about music as the film cast is, and that obsession really drives the characters at times.

Basically it is the same issued I had with the Catch-22 series; if I already like the existing film version a series really has to work to get away from that comparison.

Good for:  People who haven’t seen the movie… or read the book probably.

I think Hulu is our best value for streaming services at this point.  Also, another series that is based on the same work as an already existing film that I like.  A Terry Gilliam film no less, so you know I have it on DVD on the shelf already.  Oh, and the series is literally based on the film so, while I don’t know how that works legally, it certainly qualifies as a great big “Danger Will Robinson.” (Which reminds me, I need to put Lost in Space on the list for next time.)

That said, the series didn’t just copy the movie.  I suspect the lack of a popular novel as the original source material meant that they didn’t have to go scene for scene to meet expectations and could run with their own plan.  And that plan seemed to be to illustrate that no simple plan ever ends as expected.

The first season is a non-stop roller coaster of “if we just jump somebody back in time to save a person, kill a person, or stop an event, then our problems will be solved.”  That never happens.  I mean, of course it doesn’t or it would be a very short series.  But you do end up with a lot of plans and time spent figuring out what they missed and the jump back in time to fix that only to find there is some other complication.

Season two is a little less jumpy on the timeline, but still full of paradoxes and unanticipated results.  We haven’t started on season three yet.  We’re still a little dizzy and needed a break to watch something else.  The acting is good and I like most of the cast.  It will hold your attention.  Just don’t expect resolution, or even answers half the time.

Good for: People who like their time travel shows to be complicated.

Next time: Maybe something not on Hulu.