Is Between Netflix’s Admission That Binge-Watching Isn’t Always Better?
The streaming service’s new sci-fi drama experiments with the serialization of traditional networks.
American pop culture delights in visions of the apocalypse, and Between, the new Canadian-American original series that premiered on Netflix in late May, satisfies those desires. After a mysterious virus kills everyone over the age 21 in the small town of Pretty Lake, a group of shell-shocked residents search for answers as the rustic charm of the idyllic town quickly gives way to suspicion and violence amid a government quarantine.
Between seems engineered from the most suspenseful bits of landmark sci-fi drama series: A group of young folks, fronted by former Nickelodeon starlet Jennette McCurdy, stuck in an inescapable, claustrophobic environment (Under the Dome, Lost), grapple with the sudden die-off/disappearance of humanity (The Stand, The Leftovers), the resulting unraveling of society (Under the Dome, The Walking Dead), and seek to solve the mystery behind it (all of the above).
But there’s a vague hint of irony with Between. Instead of traditionally depositing the entire series into subscriber queues to be hungrily devoured in one sitting, Netflix is releasing episodes in a serialized, weekly format. And for a service that pioneered the act of binge-watching more than any other company in the history of modern media, Netflix seems to realize that, when it comes to storytelling, perhaps waiting is better.
Netflix’s strategy has centered on binge-ready programming since the service started commissioning original content in 2014. And it’s not just with hit originals like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black: the network is fond of picking up beloved series passed over by traditional networks (Arrested Development, The Killing) and capturing their rabid, obsessive audiences. For these types of fans, binge-watching is the natural extension of their obsessions, an impulse the streaming service wants to exploit as much as possible.
“I think Netflix was worried that once it was available in Canada, there might be considerable bleed for the rabid McCurdyians who wanted to watch it instantly,” Between creator Michael McGowan told Maxim on the development of the series. “They didn’t want to risk losing this audience.”
But for some stories, space is a narrative device itself, heightening anticipation and allowing on-screen drama to percolate in the viewer’s imagination. Lost is a classic example, separating chunks of its increasingly intricate plot with J.J. Abrams’ ludicrously unpredictable cliffhangers. And any fan of the hit NPR podcast Serial, recently renewed for two more seasons, knows that suspense is potent when sautéed in anticipation.
“I’ve binged House of Cards and many other shows, and there’s something great about watching as many episodes as you want—especially in a serialized show,” says McGowan. “However, if something is working, the formula for waiting a week until the next episode has proven that it works.”
Between, with its post-apocalyptic overtones, seems like the perfect candidate for Netflix to experiment with more traditional serialized storytelling. But the series seems hobbled by unusual production choices. McGowan, whose previous credits include inspirational dramas like Saint Ralph and One Week, seems somewhat ill-suited to explore the psychological tensions and anxiety that the end of the world necessitates. And the primary casting of Nickelodeon starlet McCurdy also feels like an overly earnest choice for the locus of Pretty Lake’s slow descent into paranoia.
If the urgency is there, McGowan must be working on a slow build. A second episode sequence where a group of high school students burn the diseased bodies of their parents, while morbid, lacks any real emotional resonance. And the characters seem like cookie-cutter caricatures of high school stereotypes: The preacher’s daughter (McCurdy), the hometown jocks, the misfit, the computer whiz, and a single African-American man. Between may work as a serial, but it seems doomed to skew more towards Red Dawn (or, at worst, Degrassi) rather than the suspense of a The Walking Dead.
But McGowan says he’s laying the groundwork for more intricate, complex storylines to come. “Everything from Lord of the Flies to Lost comes into play. I loved the story-telling in The Walking Dead and tried to create a similar sense of urgency,” says McGowan “The biggest payoff was developing and interweaving the various story lines. You could plant something in episode one and not pay it off until episode five or six. You could also have characters go through much bigger arcs and play with their nuances over time.”
Dragging storylines have sunk ambitious dramas series before, like the oppressively dull Under the Dome (which was, somehow, still renewed for a new season). Netflix may have learned the lessons of master serials, but time will tell if Between has the narrative staying power outside of McCurdy’s stardom to keep audiences hooked from week to week rather than from minute to minute.
Photos by Ken Woroner for Netflix, Inc.