Most people watch TV passively, as a way to wind down their day or relax with their family. Then there are TV fans, who sit forward in their seats, eager to be challenged and inspired as well as entertained by their favorite series. In general, whether viewed actively or passively, TV is in its nature a communal experience; we watch with friends or family, we go to work and rehash the funniest moments or surprising developments with our colleagues.
Sometimes, though, a show grabs you and refuses to let go and, enabled by the power of DVD, OnDemand viewing, and streaming, TV fans can find themselves awake at 2am, exhausted, fully aware that they need to leave for work at 6am, and bargaining with themselves, “One more episode” or, a personal favorite/bad habit, “I’ll just finish the disc”. Yes, this can be a bad idea when there’s work or class to get to the next day, but on a long weekend or even a sick day, there are few TV experiences quite as fun as discovering a new, engaging, addictive series and marathoning it. Here are a few picks of individual TV seasons that make for excellent marathoning.
Honorable Mentions (aka, I have a clear genre bias): Angel (Season 4), Firefly, Lost, Supernatural, Twin Peaks
Before tasked with thwarting nuclear meltdowns, biological attacks, or his daughter’s terrible taste in men, Jack Bauer was a counter-terrorist agent assigned to protect a presidential candidate from a death threat. The first season of 24 is adrenaline-fueled, fantastically paced, and incredibly exciting, but it’s the season’s intimacy that makes it so effective. It’s small-scale and driven by strong performances, with realistic, identifiable threats and the personal through-line of a struggling marriage to bind it together. Yes, there are twists and turns, but Jack’s every-man quality (at least compared to later years) is what makes the season so compelling.
If there were ever a series to have its cake and eat it, it’s the early years of Alias. The spy element gives action, excitement, and stakes. The personal element gives character growth, accessibility, and depth. Protagonist Sydney Bristow’s weekly missions allow for visual flair and any number of colorful characters while her home life, with a few close friends and a strained relationship with her father, is far more relatable. Throw in a fantastic lead performance from Jennifer Garner, strong supporting performances all around, and you’ve got a strong series. Add in the intense episode-ending cliffhangers, and good luck watching this series as anything but a marathon.
Many sitcoms could make for a good marathon- the best ones have their own voice and sliding from one episode to the next in a distinct, entertaining world is usually fun. What sets Arrested Development above other series is its density. Every scene is layered with jokes, from dialogue to performance to costuming and set design, from foreground to background, making it utterly rewatchable. It’s also a very smart show, setting up jokes that pay off several episodes or, at times, even a season later. Usually these are subtler moments and ones that are easy to miss; that is, unless you’re mid-marathon and “several episodes ago” means an hour and a half ago. It’s a hilarious show, it’s incredibly rewatchable, and it’s one of the most difficult series to stop watching once you’ve started.
This series, about a group of people on the run through the stars, desperately looking for a new home, and avoiding the mysterious and deadly Cylons, earns its spot on this list with its mystery, action, and stakes. The hidden-in-plain-sight adversaries and strange prophesies leave us clamoring for more, to find out just what’s going on, and how, and why. The action pumps us up, getting our adrenaline going and keeping us engaged, and the stakes add gravitas and danger to nearly everything that happens. Yes, some were disappointed with the series finale, but the characters are interesting, the effects are fantastic, and the first season, in particular, is well structured, tightly paced, and one hell of a ride.
Sometimes TV fans watch a marathon to become engrossed in a compelling, challenging story. And sometimes, we just want to chill and kill a few hours with a fun show. Law and Order is a perfect choice for just this situation. With its strong revolving cast, there’s bound to be at least one character lineup you like (a personal favorite is season five- Lennie, Logan, Van Buren, Kincaid, McCoy, and Schiff) and the series is, on the whole, executed well enough to overcome its formula. Maybe it’s not the show you’d rush to put the next DVD in for, but it’s definitely one of the easiest series to lose a day to via procedural-pushers TNT and USA.
One of the standard characteristics of marathonable series is continuity- in story, in tone, in format. An exception to this rule is The Twilight Zone, whose standalone storytelling is precisely what makes it so addictive. Each episode tells a brand new story with only Rod Serling’s appearance and narration to tie it to the others. They’re small-scale stories that put characters in very specific situations and ask the audience what they’d do. Of course, it helps that so many of the episodes are fantastic, but the atmosphere and thought provoking narrations are what suck you in and keep you from changing the channel.
What is your favorite series to marathon? Post your thoughts in the comments below!