Binge-watching the Shield: Why It’s Better that Way

The Shield Title Card

Over the past week, there have been a few posts in the TV blogosphere on binge-watching TV. Some against (strongly against), and some in favour, or at least not opposed. Jim Pagels at Slate, arguing against binge-watching, posits these arguments:

1. Episodes have their own integrity, which is blurred by watching several in a row.

2. Cliffhangers and suspense need time to breathe.

3. Episode recaps and online communities provide key analysis and insight.

4. TV characters should be a regular part of our lives, not someone we hang out with 24/7 for a few days and then never see again.

5. Taking breaks maintains the timeline of the TV universe.

I’m going to discuss these points in the context of my current revisit of The Shield, and in the process spoil a bunch of major events of that show. You’ve been warned.

The Shield has a lot of plotlines. It’s often hard to distinguish between A/B/C plots when the Strike Team, Claudette and Dutch, and the Captain/Aceveda/Forrest Whitaker/the various criminals are all involved with the same, or related crimes. Even more so, each subsequent plot builds on what’s happened previously.

And more so than on a show like Lost or Battlestar Galactica or Angel, the plots of the various seasons are similar. Sure, there are different criminals, actors, cops, etc. but in the end, they’re all cop stories and family-of-cop stories. There isn’t suddenly a portal to another dimension, or a character returning from death by space explosion as a maybe-angel-maybe-spirit-maybe-ghost Starbuck.

How, then, can you keep everything straight? How can you remember that Lem stole some black tar heroin from a house and was seen by a woman with a kid? How do you remember all the details of the Armenian money train, and that guy named Tavon who was around for a season? What happened to him? Well, if you’ve been watching the series over the course of its seven-year run, you’ve forgotten some of these things.

You’re not an elephant

On a show with this many plots and characters, you will forget things. You may not forget that they robbed the Armenian money train, but you might forget that Vic gave Corrine a backpack full of money to help support their kids (and it gets mentioned maybe twice around the time that it happens). The beauty of The Shield is that these small events are all relevant in the close of the series. The more you remember about the early seasons when the Strike Team was officially together, about seeing them fight, seeing those fights grow in scale and fierceness, the more the finale and the final season as a whole pay off.

Even just for season-long plots, consider Clevon in season 4. He is in a few episodes, certainly not a major character in the season (one with Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson generally dominating the guest roles). But if you remember who he is and what he’s about immediately when he comes on screen, you’re rewarded.

So where do you land? Binge or no binge? That is the TV blogosphere question of the week.

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