Notes on Rewatching
Last week I had an excellent trip to Ohio, giving talks both at Oberlin College and Ohio State University. At the latter, I was on a panel about television seriality with my friends Chris Becker, Sean O’Sullivan, and Greg Smith. Below is the paper I gave entitled “Why We Watch Again: Notes on Rewatching Television Serials” – as always, I welcome comments on this early draft of what will hopefully turn into a full-fledged portion of my larger project on television narrative.
Today I’ll present another installment of my ongoing, highly serialized project on contemporary television storytelling. For those who’ve read and seen other portions of the project, hopefully you’ll see the connections from part to whole; for those who have not, it does work as a stand-alone episode.
This segment emerges at the intersection of two previous published portions. The first is a presentation I made a year & a half ago in Zurich called “Serial Boxes” where I explored how the rise of DVD box sets changes television’s narrative possibilities for both creators and viewers. In drawing explicit links between the bound aesthetics of compiled 19th century serialized novels and today’s boxed sets, a key effect was how both instances of bound publication enable consumers to repeatedly read or watch a once-segmented serial as whole entity, encouraging rereading and rewatching.
The second feeder for this presentation is research that Jonathan Gray & I did years ago about “spoiler fans” of Lost – viewers who actively seek out and consume narrative information ahead of time so that they watch new episodes knowing what will happen in advance. Through an online survey, we explored why people would choose to view this way – one of our conclusions was that for many fans, spoilers serve as a way to turn the first-time viewing experience into a practice more akin to rewatching.
In both of these projects, I realized that the experience & practice of rewatching is understudied – the only scholarship I know on rewatching television focuses on the rerun (such as the fine work of Derek Kompare), where rewatching is much more ephemeral, uncontrolled and erratic when compared to the structured self-controlled rewatching enabled by DVD box sets. Looking across media is more helpful – Matei Calinescu’s excellent book Rereading and Barbara Klinger’s study of film rewatchers in Beyond the Multiplex both speak more specifically to the directed, controlled experiences enabled by boxed television. However, the experiences of rereading literature and rewatching films do not encompass the range of practices active in rewatching television serials. This paper is a first stab at teasing out these differences.
Today I hope to publicly brainstorm how literary and film precedents might help us understand rewatching television, and posit a few ways that television rewatching might be unique. The next step in my research would be to test some of these hypotheses through empirical reception research similar to the survey Gray & I did about spoiler fans – certainly that research confirmed some and denied other hypotheses we’d made ahead of time, so I see such empirical study as essential to making claims about viewer experiences. But for today, what follows is pure speculation and reflection on my own and others’ rewatching experiences.
One facet of rewatching that applies throughout a range of different media is what we might call the “analytic rewatch.” The goal here is primarily close analysis, trying to make sense of the text’s structures, mechanics, poetics, or even plot. This is a mode of rereading and rewatching common within academia – we all do it in teaching our courses and writing our books, and undoubtedly this analytic impulse extends to our non-professional practices of reading and watching as well. Such an approach to rewatching treats the text as a nut to crack, encouraging close analysis to understand how it works. Some genres & modes of fiction are particularly conducive to such analysis, ranging from the modernist experiments of literature and art cinema, to the more popular realms of mystery fiction and puzzle films. The narrative paratexts that have emerged on DVDs, such as director commentaries and making-of documentaries, formalize the analytic rewatch, as you are literally guided through the text by an expert companion. I have argued elsewhere that such hermeneutic impulses are explicitly encouraged by many contemporary television serials, as they foreground the operational aesthetic of marveling at a show’s complex storytelling mechanics alongside the forward drive of the plot.
The analytic rewatch is complicated by the temporality of television serials. In one of the most evocative lines of contemporary dialog for television scholars, Lost‘s John Locke foregrounds his own analytic impulse. After screening a mysterious 20-year-old “orientation film” for a newly discovered underground bunker, he gleefully states, “We’re going to need to watch that again.” This mode of rewatching is grounded in the show’s timeframe (as yet uncomplicated by time travel!), as Locke looks to the past to help understand his present. Narrative rewatching is similarly temporal, as we look to past moments of story with knowledge of narrative futures – we rewatch with the mindset of “now that I know what will happen, it looks different.” Thus when we rewatch a puzzle film or reread a mystery novel, we do so with full knowledge of the ending and analyze the twisty plot accordingly.
Television viewers certainly rewatch a series after it is complete, but serials that unfold over many years often enable and encourage other possibilities of analytic rewatching. For instance, I (and thousands of other fans) rewatched the first five seasons of Lost in anticipation of the show’s final season in 2010. Working through the series from this vantage point, I certainly knew a lot more about where things were going than I did on the first viewing, but I also lacked many answers to the show’s nested mysteries. This type of in media res rewatch seems unique to serials and particular to the long drawn-out timing of television (although an apt comparison might be series of novels like Harry Potter), as we know more than on a first viewing but not as much as we will upon completion. Such rewatching changes the hermeneutic terms – not only can we analyze the show to see how now-known outcomes were foreshadowed & planned out, we also watch for loose ends & future possibilities to anticipate and predict where the story may be going. In the particular case of Lost, such practices may have contributed to much of the disappointment felt among many fans in the final season – after rewatching to catalog unanswered questions, the lack of explicit answers to many of them stood out.
My favorite current show Breaking Bad adds a different dimension of analytic rewatching: the aesthetic reappraisal. The first season was a good, promising but flawed show anchored in a spectacular leading performance by Bryan Cranston. The second and third seasons made a huge leap in quality to a level that I’d contend ranks among the best television I’ve ever seen. So when I went back to rewatch the first season this past fall, I was interested to analyze how the show made this leap and isolate the weaknesses of the first season. However, with knowledge of the show’s future direction, I found that the first season was much better than my memory of it – knowing where it was going, I filled in underdeveloped characters based on their future vectors and fleshed out key themes and relationships that were still sketchy in early episodes. With knowledge of the whole (or at least the “partial whole” of three seasons), early episodes seemed weightier and more thought out than they did initially. Even though I know that the writers were still finding their footing, they have managed to build from a not-quite-solid foundation in a way that reinforces the first season, and creates the retrospective illusion of uniform quality and consistency. This is in large part due to season 3’s strategy of revisiting key moments from characters’ backstories via flashbacks that offer new dimensions and perspectives on previous actions. It does not feel like a cheat of retroactive continuity, but rather the craft of a narrative world with emotional and psychological depth moving both forward and backward in the story, a storytelling achievement that I was only able to fully appreciate through my rewatching.
The practice of analytic rewatching foregrounds the intellectual pleasures of viewing, which I’d argue have been under-acknowledged when it comes to television. But narrative consumption is also emotional, and much of the motivation for rereading and rewatching stems from our seeking out particular emotional responses; however, the emotional experiences for stand-alone films and novels differ somewhat from long-form serials. As Klinger discovered, much of the motivation for rewatching a film stems from the feelings of comfort and familiarity of a text – rewatching a favorite film can function as a form of companionship or therapy, replaying a familiar, positive experience as a controlled and predictable bit of pleasure. For long-form television, it seems likely that such therapeutic rewatching is more common as a primary motive for single episodes rather than entire series, as a 60-100 or more hour commitment to rewatching a long-form serial goes beyond the bounds of companionship and familiarity for most people. I certainly know people who regularly rewatch special or favorite episodes of a series, like Buffy‘s “Once More With Feeling” or Lost‘s “The Constant,” much in the way that Klinger’s film rewatchers did. But something else is going on concerning serial rewatching.
Another key emotional motive for rewatching involves a form of emotional replay and nostalgia: the act of rewatching can serve as a flashback to a show’s first viewing experience. This could be through the connection of a text to its initial viewing context as tied to a particular moment or place in your life, or can it serve to evoke the vivid emotional response to specific episode. For instance, I watched most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a few months binge when my oldest child was an infant – when I rewatch those episodes, I cannot help but recall the palpable sense of exhaustion and intimacy of that initial emotional context that colors my experience and memories of the show. Because the importance of a television serial’s temporality, the emotional link between an ongoing series and a particular viewing context can be quite strong, reinforced through weekly habit over months and years, and thus serving as a central facet of the rewatching experience.
Rewatching can also shift your emotional reaction to the story – where a first-time viewer might experience suspense, curiosity, or surprise toward plot developments, a rewatcher experiences anticipation for what they know is coming. This is not an insignificant shift, as the pleasures of anticipating what you know will happen can be quite rich, adding a new experiential layer to the series on the second-time through. This emotional shift was a chief motivator we discovered for Lost‘s spoiler fans, as many cited their dislike for surprise and suspense as a prime motivator for consuming spoilers. For a spoiled first-time viewer, anticipation plays off the fact that you know what will happen, but you don’t know precisely how the events will be told. For rewatchers, anticipation is inflected with imperfect memory – while you may have seen it once, the way that you remember it is rarely sufficiently exact to precisely match your anticipation. Thus rewatchers actively compare the unfolding show with their memories, resulting in minor surprises and moments of recognition alongside larger feelings of anticipation – such comparisons can yield a form of playful engagement with your own past experiences, adding another layer of viewing pleasure to the rewatching practice.
The third facet of rewatching I want to explore is a dimension that seems less relevant to literature and film, and thus is underdeveloped by Calinescu and Klinger: rewatching television as a social experience. The assumed norm of reading is as a solitary, self-controlled pracitce; cinema is a public experience, but through the darkened big screen context, it encourages a feeling of being “alone together.” Television has always been understood primarily as a domestic practice experienced as part of a family or group of friends; additionally, the prescriptive television schedule assumes that viewers are engaged in nationwide simultaneous practice, even if they are watching alone, and post-viewing sites of conversation from watercoolers to Twitter encourage the sense of viewing as a social experience. While these generalizations don’t account for many variations in consumption practices, they do help shape the ways that we assume rereading and rewatching will function, with literature and film encouraging more individualistic and focused practices, and television being more social and communal.
Rewatching television on DVD enables a self-controlled individual experience, but many viewers still foreground social elements. Bloggers organize structured rewatches for a community, fostering online conversation as a groups of viewers work through a boxed set. Such structured rewatches take advantage of the built-in segments and gaps within television serials, as episodes are paced out over weeks and months to simulate but accelerate the mode of simultaneity imposed by the broadcast schedule. Although a structured rewatch of a puzzle show like Lost cannot recreate the model of research and theorization embraced by many viewers on their first-time viewing, the after-the-fact group analysis can offer similar opportunities for collective intelligence and group hermeneutics.
I’ve conducted my own group rewatches in my classroom, as I’ve twice taught a course where we collectively watch The Wire in its entirety; while most of my students are watching the show for the first time, a significant minority join me as a rewatcher. For us rewatchers, the opportunity to talk through the show in an in-depth analytic community is hugely rewarding, a pleasure that is certainly common to the literature classroom but far rarer in media studies.In my Wire course, my attention is actually split: one eye is rewatching the series for both analytic and emotional reasons, while my other eye is watching the watchers. This is a social dimension of rewatching that seems unique to the televised serial form: in a group of viewers, a rewatcher can simultaneously watch the show and observe the experience of a first-time viewer. I do this with my students, vicariously experiencing the surprises, discoveries, shifting allegiances, and emotional payoffs of a first-time viewer, as well as observing the diversity of reactions to and perspectives on the unfolding narrative.
I have experienced this dual attention outside the classroom as well. For many of my favorite television series, including The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, and Veronica Mars, I watched at least the first season on my own, and then rewatched from the beginning with my wife. For Lost, I rewatched the first five seasons as she viewed them for the first time, an experience that was quite informative to me concerning the processes of narrative comprehension. As she lacked the community of Lostpedians and other hardcore fans to walk through the discovery process with her, I served as a sounding board for her theories and attempts to parse out the twisting narrative. I also found myself anticipating not only key moments in the show, but her potential reactions to those moments, highlighting the social pleasures of narrative experiences that are often downplayed by scholars. Television, arguably more than any other media, is a storytelling form that exists to be shared and integrated into social interactions; the effect of rewatching with a first-timer highlights the ways that conversations about ongoing narratives pervade everyday life and shape our experiences as viewers.
Let me conclude by briefly positing a fourth rationale for rewatching, but one that is more of a synthesis of the previous modes than a standalone element. The three prime motivations for rewatching – analytic, emotional, and social – combine into a key aspect that Calinescu explores for rereaders: the ludic experience. We rewatch as a form of play: solving puzzles, seeking patterns, embracing the thrill of discovery, managing our emotional investments, and vicariously experiencing the text through others’ eyes. We rewatch as participants in the game, seeking new victories or challenges within the text and our social experiences of media viewing. This ludic dimension of narrative consumption, whether for television or other media, is underdeveloped within narratology, and is part of my ongoing project that I hope to tackle in a future installment. But for now, I will end it there with an invitation to contribute your own experiences in rewatching.
Calinescu, Matei. Rereading. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Gray, Jonathan, and Jason Mittell. “Speculation on Spoilers: Lost Fandom, Narrative Consumption, and Rethinking Textuality.” Particip@tions 4, no. 1 (2007): available at http://www.participations.org/Volume%204/Issue%201/4_01_graymittell.htm
Klinger, Barbara. Beyond the multiplex : cinema, new technologies, and the home. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Mittell, Jason. “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television.” The Velvet Light Trap, no. 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40.
Mittell, Jason. “Serial Boxes.” Just TV, January 20, 2010, https://justtv.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/serial-boxes/
Filed under: Media Studies, Narrative, Television, Viewers | 6 Comments