Disney+ and the Return of the Water Cooler
As Game of Thrones ended its eight-year run earlier this year, the web was flooded with stories about its cultural significance, with many outlets predicting that it would be the last “water cooler” TV series. In other words, as our viewing habits shift more and more toward streaming, many said, we would be missing out on those big shared cultural experiences that have dominated popular entertainment for decades.
Popular though it may be, it’s hard to really discuss Stranger Things on an episode-by-episode basis when entire seasons are dumped into our laps at once, with some of us binging in one day, some moseying toward the end in a more relaxed weekend, and others sipping each new season an episode at a time over the course of weeks or months, long past the point
where any meaningful discussion has fizzled.
We’ve become so accustomed to this binge-watching delivery of new series that when Disney announced a more traditional, weekly release schedule for its serialized Disney+ exclusives, the internet was sorta shocked. Some instantly leapt to the most cynical assumption possible—that Disney+ didn’t want subscribers signing up for a month, burning through what they wanted to watch, then canceling. The truth turns out to be a little less sinister: Entire seasons of its launch shows simply aren’t finished and ready to be binged just yet.
But never mind the reasoning behind this decision to forgo the binge model. What I’m more interested in are the effects. The day Disney+ launched back in November, all anyone in my friend circle could talk about was The Mandalorian, the new weekly Star Wars series set between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. That was to be expected. It’s the new and shiny Star Wars thing, and most of my friends were champing at the bit to watch it.
Then the next Friday rolled around, and my chat groups
and Facebook newsfeed were once again dominated by discussions of The Mandalorian. And the Friday after that. And the Friday after that. And throughout all of these discussions, there has persisted a fundamental assumption that everyone has seen the most recent episode—that we’re all on the same page—to a degree I can’t remember since the advent of the DVR.
Last Friday, my wife and I had friends in from out of town, which meant we would had to put off watching Episode Five of The Mandalorian, “The Gunslinger,” until later in the weekend. What hadn’t really occurred to me is that this also meant I would need to mute all of my chat channels, opt out of Facebook, and eschew Reddit completely (even subreddits totally unrelated
to Star Wars or Disney+) until I was caught up. Not so much out of fear of being spoiled, but more because I wouldn’t have a clue what anyone was talking (or memeing) about.
And it’s not merely The Mandalorian that’s creating this sort of phenomenon. While my main friend circle consists mostly of Star Wars geeks, I have
The Imagineering Story
another, sizeable friend group that would be better described as Disney nerds. And their current idea of appointment TV is The Imagineering Story, a documentary series whose sixth and final episode airs (umm . . . streams) this weekend.
For my Marvel-loving friends, I can say with near certainty that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, What If . . ?, and other ongoing series in the months and years to come will similarly dominate the pop culture conversation in similarly sustained ways.
Of course, all of this creates something of a problem for those of us who’ve gotten into the habit of examining an entire 6- or 10- or 12-episode run of a TV show and evaluating its merits as a complete work. That’s why you haven’t seen me reviewing The Mandalorian here on Cineluxe, because much as I’ve loved it so far, I honestly can’t tell you yet if it’ll hold up to scrutiny once this season has wrapped.
Does that really matter, though? The show could completely flub the landing in its season finale (which debuts just after Christmas) and it would still have merit in the way it’s brought me and my friends closer together, giving us something to discuss on an ongoing basis that isn’t politics or doctor’s appointments.
And to be completely fair, I should point out that, in the larger discussion about the end of Game of Thrones and the water-cooler discussion that ended along with it, not every pundit saw it as the end of an era. In a piece with the unwieldy title “Game of Thrones doesn’t mark the end of appointment TV—Hollywood always gives viewers what they want,” Alex Sherman predicted the Disney+ release model way before Disney announced it. “Netflix has upended TV watching by giving consumers what they want—lower prices, no commercials, entire season releases,” he said. “But as long as consumers want shared viewing experiences (and they do), streaming platforms will come around and begin to offer them.”
I doubt Sherman would have guessed that his prediction would come to pass so quickly, or in quite this form, but with subscriptions predicted to hit 20 million (on par with the 19.6 million people who viewed the finale of Game of Thrones legally) and a reported 43 percent of Americans expressing some level of interest in signing up at some point, it’s pretty safe to say that Disney+ has brought the water cooler back again.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.