Andre Braugher as Raymond Holt with his dog Cheddar on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
There’s an assumption that the most binge-worthy television is drama, especially when it’s got some central mystery that pulls you through from one episode to the next. This is the definition of “binge-worthy” that points to shows like Lost, Broadchurch, and the immensely gripping Babylon Berlin — shows full of twists and cliffhangers and mortal peril and whodunits. And sure, I get it. Those shows are great! You need to know what happens! You get sucked in, and you can’t get yourself out until you finish your inexorable march toward the end!
But allow me to postulate that the best, most satisfying, most truly sustainable, long-term, “shape an era of your life” television binges are not those intense bursts of a mystery obsession. The best TV binges are comedy binges, specifically when they’re fictional comedies. Sitcoms and dramadies: These are a TV marathoner’s best friend.
The biggest liability for most TV drama binges is that even when a show is great, it can also be relentlessly soul-sucking. Ever tried watching more than one episode of Handmaid’s Tale in an evening? I dare you to do it and not end the night staring blankly at a wall in despair, overwhelmed by the futility of railing against the patriarchy. I believe watching multiple episodes of The Leftovers in a day might actually ruin you. And even more tonally varied shows (your Battlestar Galacticas, your Buffys, your Houses of Cards) regularly take a turn into some relentlessly traumatizing territory. It can quickly feel like Too Much.
Enter the comedy binge, a deep dive into worlds frequently based on jokes and warmth, worlds where misadventures are often accompanied by the word “zany,” and where the turns into intense emotional territory go hand in hand with humorous emotional safety valves. This is not to say that comedies are simpler, or easier, or less demanding for the viewer. Some the best, most bingeable comedies are also those that use humor to move in and out of insightful character moments or to create a funny scaffolding for biting social critiques. But when you’re bingeing, that mixture of light and dark is crucial for long-term viewer engagement.
Not all comedies are light. BoJack Horseman would not make a comfortable, relaxing TV binge. But on the whole, you’re more likely to get a sense of being enveloped in a life-affirming blanket when entering hour six of a Brooklyn Nine-Nine binge than hour six of Happy Valley.
You’d think that heavily serialized stories (which are more likely to be dramas on TV) would be a more natural fit for binge viewing. When you’re deprived of a nice little episode-ending button, it makes sense to slide into the next episode right away. If nothing tells you the story is done, maybe you’ll just keep going — except it rarely works that way. Once you realize you’re in something for the long haul and that there’s no rhythm of regularly arriving doses of narrative satisfaction in the form of endings, it doesn’t feel as good to power through hour after hour.
Especially for great sitcoms, television comedies tend to stick to a rhythm that’s tied to episode-level storytelling. Many of the best comedies do have big, slowly earned narrative rewards for sticking around — will-they-won’t-theys, recurring characters, annual traditions — but comedies are also likely to give your story-loving brain a gentle hit of resolution-flavored pleasure with the end of each episode. That attention to episode-level storytelling is so important for a truly sustained binge: It’s the difference between psyching yourself up to tackle an entire steak and inadvertently eating 14 bite-sized hamburgers. And this is certainly not a comedy-specific thing; Law & Order is just as prone to the “whoops I ate four single-serving bags of chips” phenomenon as 30 Rock. But on 30 Rock, you get that good episodic rhythm with more laughs and fewer rape victims.
Not for nothing, but TV comedies tend to be shorter than dramas. For a lot of the same reasons that shows with a strong episodic backbone make more sustainable TV marathons, shows with shorter episode run times make for happier TV benders. You can fit single episodes into small corners of your day; you can pop several in a sitting. The TV comedy is just better designed for continual, easy consumption.
Most TV watchers know the experience of watching a mystery that really grips you — something that demands you fly directly through a season so you can find out who did it. The big, tricky balancing act with those stories, though, is that they tend to burn very hot and bright, and then they collapse quickly. You’re left feeling a little empty at the end, and you walk around in a daze, blinking in the sudden absence of that thing that was absorbing you. It’s fun! But it’s brief. The comedy binge, especially the sitcom binge, is more about relationships that develop gradually, giving you hints and teases of things to come. The drama binge is so often a fling. A comedy binge can feel more like a real relationship.
My most recent intense experience with the delights of the comedy binge has been with the workplace sitcom Superstore, a show that’s a master of the half-a-second visual goof, and which has also been spinning out a well-earned “when will they finally get together” romantic pairing for three full seasons. Immersion into a show like Superstore is fantastically easy for all the reasons I’ve described. It’s warm and inviting, it gives you a bounty of bite-sized rewards as you gulp down hours of the show at once, and it feels good, especially because the show is also great at harnessing its jokes into big, chewy, of-the-moment political issues without feeling burdensomely self-important.
I confess that part of the appeal of my Superstore binge is also that it’s been undemanding of me. It does not require extensive, painstaking puzzle-box decoding. It earns affection from the viewer, but it does so by investing in and being happy to dawdle with its characters — there is no premise-shifting twist lurking around the next corner, designed to shock you and keep you from trusting the narrative ground beneath your feet. There is almost no meanness. It is a generous show. It cares that the viewer enjoys herself. It’s compulsively easy to binge because the sight of a new episode does not create a dread about what might be coming, or an anxiety looking for resolution. You binge it because you know it will give you warmth, and because you trust it. You binge it because it feels like making a friend.
TV dramas can do this too, and there are many great drama binges. But the comedy binge tends to sneak up on you. It’s disarming. You think it’s going to be something fun and light, and you’re not expecting the show to really wiggle its way into your heart. But the next thing you know, it’s way past your bedtime and you’re weeping, weeping, at Pam and Jim’s engagement or Raymond Holt’s love of his dog Cheddar or Lydia’s hospitalization in One Day at a Time, and you’re a goner. The comedy binge is the best binge because it makes you laugh, and while you’re laughing you hardly even realize you’re also falling in love.