I’m talking to my friend Rob about the hit HBO series Succession. Our conversation has lasted for nearly an hour, and we’ve discussed everything: Kendall and Roman Roy‘s sibling rivalry, the show’s critiques of capitalism, the heartbreaking ways the Roy kids pine for patriarch Logan’s affection, even specific scenes in that brilliant Season Two bottle episode, “Safe Room.” “It was such a smart way of showing imagined status and value, who’s placed where in the hierarchy,” I tell Rob. He nods. When we get to the season finale, that’s where I really shine. “Kendall is such a relatable character,” I argue. “There’s a lameness to him for sure, but his betrayal in ‘This Is Not for Tears’ really shows that he’s his father’s son.”
I’m proud of myself. I sound informed, passionate and culturally literate. Because here’s the thing: I’ve never watched a second of Succession in my life.
I’m the king of bullshitting my way through prestige-television discourse. It’s not just Succession: I cheated through Game of Thrones, BoJack Horseman, Ozark and many other hot new titles, all thanks to a combo platter of spoiler-filled tweets, Wikipedia synopses, YouTube essays and reaction GIFs. It was through Twitter, for example, that I was able to pick up Kendall Roy’s cringeworthy rap; meanwhile, a video essay from the Nerdwriter YouTube channel guided me through the series’ more serious (and subtle) subplots.
And so, rather than watching 20 hourlong episodes, I was able to stay up-to-date with the Roys in a little less than an hour.
The same goes for Bushra Bulut, a 20-year-old medical student in the U.K. “I regularly go through wikias [a “Wikipedia” for fandoms] to catch up on shows my friends watch,” she admits. Because her studies are intense — with full course loads as well as mandatory shift work at the hospital — she only has a few spare hours per week, which doesn’t leave much time for television. “Even with the last couple seasons of Game of Thrones, I didn’t have time to watch. I knew, though, that someone was going to spoil it for me. So instead, I read episode summaries, watched YouTube clips of the main scenes and perused wikia updates to know what was going on.”
For Bulut, finding digital CliffsNotes for the latest critically acclaimed streaming totem has become necessary for her social life, especially when she’s with friends for whom TV is the basis of their bond.
“I pretended to watch Succession so I could bond with my dad,” says Hesse Deni. “Every once in a while, he asks where I am in the show, and I always have an IMDb episode description at the ready.” IMDb episode descriptions are particularly helpful, she explains, because “they’re vague enough to be able to walk this tightrope of knowing what happens in each episode, but not spoiling too much.”
It’s long been acknowledged that prestige TV isn’t only to be consumed in its entirety, but also endlessly re-watched and discussed — both IRL and online. As far back as 2014, Karl Taro Greenfeld suggested that this is now the barometer by which people “perform” cultural literacy. “What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate,” he wrote in the New York Times.
The ensuing five years have only made that feeling infinitely more overwhelming — for no other reason than there are more things to watch and talk about. Or, as Deadspin’s Albert Burneko puts it, we currently live in the Age of Too Many Shows. And while, earlier this week, Netflix announced a plan to “fix” this problem, it proposed to do so by adding an option to let users consume content at 1.5 times the normal speed. Not by, you know, actually limiting the number of properties it releases.
Still, skipping through shows is a strategy many streamers already employ. “There are sequences in Succession that are so pointlessly long in a really overwrought way to tell the viewer that *feelings are happening* that I get bored,” explains journalist Carol Scareffer, who writes for the Intercept. “I fast-forward because I want to get to the meat of the storyline. I’m certainly disrupting the artistry of the show in favor of the glut of binging, but a lot of those shows are full of tons of hot, melodramatic air that can be very efficiently deflated with some surgical fast-forwarding.”
And the streaming services are well aware of these habits. Fast-forwarding, sure, but other means of “cheating” as well: tweets, wikias, memes, GIFs and episode recaps. “Netflix has a social media team that specifically looks at what moments people are gravitating toward,” says Scott Bryan, an entertainment journalist and co-host of Must Watch, a BBC podcast. The services find out — and capitalize upon — the specific moments of a show that viewers are responding to the most. “They’re hoping to change your habits so you stay within their ecosystem for just that little bit longer, or never leave the ecosystem at all,” he explains.
“It’s no surprise that people use Reddit threads, wikias or YouTube explainers to catch up [on TV] and to remember all the important parts without having to rewatch it,” he continues. “The issue with that becomes that it never replicates the experience of falling in love with a show wholeheartedly, without a distraction from your device or the outside world, which is a shame.”
As for me, unable to lie any longer, I tell Rob the truth about Succession and ask whether or not he feels betrayed. “I’ll be honest with you, mate,” he laughs. “I haven’t even finished the first season myself yet.”