Make 550-some episodes of any TV show, and some unusual coincidences start to turn up. Tuesday, I was playing around with Simpsons World, the immersive website/app that allows cable subscribers access to every Simpsons episode ever made. The very first two episodes I watched–one randomly served for me by the site, the other chosen after I did a search on “Marvin Monroe”–both began with Homer wrecking his car after a toy got lodged under the brake pedal. As one does. (The episodes: season 21’s “Rednecks and Broomsticks” and season 15’s “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” You can check it for yourself.)
I mention this not to criticize The Simpsons as repetitive–again, 550-some episodes–but as an example of the different kind of experience that this new kind of TV streaming promises. Put hundreds of hours of TV programming online in a searchable, customizable form, with 25 years of TV equally accessible, and you’re going to find yourself discovering some strange connections.
One of the major influences on TV’s current cultural glory days is “binge-watching”–the marathon viewing of a show first enabled by VHS and DVD sets, which really took off after services like Netflix made it frictionless. Bingeing allowed new audiences to discover great serials like Friday Night Lights, while turning dramas like Breaking Bad from cult shows to blockbusters as they addicted viewers between seasons.
Besides bringing in viewers, bingeing helped elevate TV’s cultural status, by underscoring its similarity to the novel. If the original airing of The Wire, week by week, recalled Dickens’ publishing serial novels in English newspapers, bingeing it several episodes at a time allowed you to go through it the way we read Dickens now.
Bingeing, however, tends to confer that prestige on a particular kind of show: the ambitious serial drama, which compels you to begin the next episode after the last ends. This is one genre that has taken advantage of the TV medium’s strength for telling linear stories, which begin at a beginning and can take much more time than movies to drive forward toward an end.
But that’s not the only kind of expansive storytelling that TV’s open-endedness makes possible. Sitcoms, in particular, don’t generally drive in a straight line from a beginning to an end–not even, necessarily, more serial recent ones like The Office. Comedies, like The Simpsons, create immersive worlds rather than propulsive narratives. You can certainly binge a sitcom as much as you can a drama–Netflix, for instance, is counting on you to do that in the new year with Friends. But you don’t need, or necessarily even want, to do it in a particular order.
If a serial drama creates its effects by driving forward along a track, like a train, something like The Simpsons expands outward, like a cloud, or maybe a spiral galaxy extending from a center. You can live inside it, jumping from point to point, discovering new corners or echoing themes, skipping from season 2 to season 23 as if through a space-time wormhole.
The Simpsons World site is still incomplete; it went live Tuesday but has yet to add features like allowing people to find and share customized clips. (You’ll know when that feature is added, because they will be everywhere on the damn Internet.) Yet you can already see that this kind of format has the potential to do for this kind of TV show what binge-watching did for serials. You can search for terms, for instance–episodes involving the inanimate carbon rod, or Hans Moleman, or gambling. You can skip around and explore the series like a character inside a massively-layer online game universe.
It’s not binge-watching, exactly, though it could be just as time-suckingly immersive. Maybe we can call it graze-watching. (Or gorge-watching, for those with more Homer-like appetites).
And while it’s not every show that could take advantage of this kind of destination viewing, it could work for more than The Simpsons. If Friends hadn’t done a streaming deal with Netflix, for instance, I could easily imagine a Friends World, letting you customize clips, search for favorite quotes and skip around through every possible permutation of who’s dating whom. It doesn’t even need to be comedy-only: imagine creating a Law and Order World, with the rights to each season and spinoff of the franchise, searchable and drilled deeply for data and themes. (I’m envisioning a vast crime map of NYC with everyone murdered by L&O plotted on a block-by-block level.)
TV is still figuring out what it’s going to do with streaming and what streaming will do to it. But one thing that excites me about Simpsons World is that it suggests that different kinds of streaming can work better to show off TV’s different strengths–and thus to celebrate different kinds of TV greatness. Not all “Golden Age” TV–or whatever you want to call it–is about stories that drive in a straight line from this thing to the next thing. Some is about world-building that allows you to skip from this thing to that thing to that thing.
One of the new patron saints of serial drama, Rust Cohle, said that time was a flat circle. In Simpsons World time is, maybe, more like a round doughnut.