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Creators are weighing whether to provide TV watchers with the "binge" experience

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's some must-see TV on tonight, and it's not the Oscars.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LAST OF US")

ANNA TORV: (As Tess) This is your chance. You get her there. You keep her alive, and you set everything right.

RASCOE: That's right. It's the finale of the first season of HBO's pandemic drama, "The Last Of Us." The show airing one episode per week has had almost everybody talking, tweeting, anticipating. And it's made us wonder about a debate that's front and center in streaming - is it better to deliver a show all at once so consumers can binge it or make them wait week by week? Who better to ask than our in-house experts, NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and Glen Weldon, host of Pop Culture Happy Hour? Hello to both of you.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey. Great to be here.

RASCOE: So what about "The Last Of Us?" What has made it so effective as a weekly show?

WELDON: Well, this is Glen. I'll start. As you heard, it's really intense. It's violent. It's very high-stakes. So it just helps to decompress afterwards, you know, get up off the couch, take a breath, walk your dog, look at a freaking sunset. I mean, but it's also rich enough that it benefits from unpacking it with other people. So it's one of those shows that people used to gather around the watercooler in the office to discuss on Monday morning. Water cooler's moved online. You check your socials to see what people are saying, what Easter eggs you might have missed. I mean, don't get me wrong. The monoculture is gone, and it's not coming back. But with a show like "The Last Of Us," going online, you can kind of pretend it's still around.

RASCOE: Would it have worked if it were delivered all at once? Like, a lot of the Netflix shows are delivered all at once, and that's how we got used to doing it that way.

DEGGANS: Sure. I - this is Eric. I think it's probable that it would have been a hit if all the episodes had been delivered at once. But when you have them strung out weekly, it spreads the impact of a show on the zeitgeist. People start to talk about it, and it gets other people's attention, and it becomes a snowball that kind of rolls its way through the pop culture landscape. And, you know, to me, the thing about "The Last Of Us" is that every episode gives you new storytelling and almost kind of resets the storytelling in some ways. You know, from one episode to the next, you might see the same incident portrayed from different vantage points, different perspectives, different characters' points of view. And that also allows you to feel like you're stepping into something new every week. And the other thing that I think is cool about it is that, you know, people binge-watch something, and then they're like, I have nothing to watch. I don't know what's on TV. Well, this takes a great series and spreads it over a couple of months, so you always have something great to watch on television coming up.

WELDON: Yeah, I agree with you, Eric, but that's exactly why I worry that if it had dropped all at once, I worry that it would have burned out in a weekend. You know, instead of a six-course meal that takes all evening to eat, you get a big bowl of jelly beans and you just scarf down by the fistful. Pleasurable - both pleasurable. Both provide the same calories, but one's a lot more satisfying.

RASCOE: What kind of show do you think lends itself then to, like, binge-watching and to, you know, eating the jelly beans?

WELDON: Well, different people have different criteria. For me, comfort viewing makes a better binge. Like, if the format of the show is rigid and unchanging, if the stakes are low, if you can fold your laundry to it, it's bingeable. So that's procedurals like "Law And Order," most reality TV, frankly, especially competitive reality TV, especially "RuPaul's Drag Race," mystery of the week shows, monster of the week shows like "Poker Face" and "The X-Files," hangout shows where you just want to pretend you, like, live in the town, like "Gilmore Girls," sitcoms like "Happy Endings." Now, I just realized all those examples I gave are older shows, most of them, anyway. And that's not a coincidence. I think familiarity for me is a key factor in bingeability.

DEGGANS: One thing I like to binge is high-quality shows that have already been on the air, shows like "Breaking Bad," shows like "Justified," shows like "Mad Men," where there's a lot going on, and you see all these little things that maybe you didn't catch the first time you watched it when it was airing weekly. Or you get a chance to connect things that happened in the first episode that connect to the sixth episode of a season. What I really like is this sort of hybrid model that is occasionally emerging where, like, Hulu, with "Only Murders In The Building," they dropped three episodes first, so you could binge the beginning of it. And then once the show really sort of caught fire and started going, they would parcel out the episodes one a week.

RASCOE: This isn't a debate just for fans and critics. There are, like, some real economic implications for streaming, right? Because, obviously, Netflix had changed the game by dropping all the episodes at once. And now is there some thought that they might need to rethink that?

DEGGANS: Bingeing is a way of sort of giving the consumer control over their consumption, right? But what streamers are finding is that, sometimes, it's better to retain a little bit of that control for the good of their business and also for the good of the viewer. So a lot of streaming services are realizing that to limit churn, which is to limit people picking up their service and then dropping it right away, it makes more sense to string out the episodes. And I think most series are not compelling enough to really sustain a lot of pop culture conversation if you drop all the episodes at once.

RASCOE: You know, I loved "Yellowjackets," and I was really annoyed that Showtime put that out once a week. I wanted to know what was going to happen next, but they kept me engrossed in it. Otherwise, I might have looked at that, you know, just binged it all right then. So you're saying they have to save us?

DEGGANS: You're a parent just like me, and you know, sometimes, kids want things that they can't have.

RASCOE: Yes.

DEGGANS: It's not good for them to have it. They eat too many jellybeans. They're going to have a stomachache. So you just got to go, hey, look. You got to wait for that next episode of "Yellowjackets."

RASCOE: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and Glen Weldon, host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks to you both for coming on.

WELDON: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Yeah, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.