Netflix has another hit on its hands with The Witcher, the dark fantasy series adapted from the novels of the same name (which also became a huge video game franchise). The show debuted December 20 and is now reported to be the most popular streaming show worldwide. That’s no small achievement, given that it had to outdo Disney+’s Star Wars series The Mandalorian.
Two of the biggest new projects to hit the streaming environment this year, both The Witcher and The Mandalorian have ended up at the epicenter of pop culture conversation. However, while the shows have dominated that discussion, the way in which they were each released has also inspired no small amount of debate, too.
So which is better, the binge or the long game?
A tale of two formats
Like so many prior Netflix success stories, season 1 of The Witcher was released in a single, binge-friendly batch of episodes that gives subscribers the freedom to watch the entire season at whatever pace they choose. That model is a hallmark of the Netflix experience, and (along with a long list of popular shows and movies) prompted millions of subscribers to toss a coin — or somewhere in the range of $9 to $16 — to The Witcher and its streaming home each month.
It’s also a model that has increasingly prompted debate over whether the traditional, week-to-week release model favored by shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and of course, Disney’s The Mandalorian are aging right alongside old-school pay TV.
With The Witcher and The Mandalorian, we now find ourselves with two popular shows that offer great examples of how the Netflix binge and the classic, weekly release format can both serve their respective shows well in the streaming age.
In the case of The Witcher, the adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy saga unfolds as a slow burn, with three storylines that gradually coalesce into a single narrative. As many reviewers (including myself in my review of The Witcher season 1) have pointed out, it takes several episodes for the series to reveal what kind of story it’s telling.
Once it reaches that point, however, the season rewards your patience with a saga full of compelling characters and fascinating lore, culminating in a third-act arc that ties all of the loose ends together in epic form.
Like so many other Netflix series, The Witcher is structured more like an extended movie than a typical TV show. It shares that quality with Stranger Things, The Umbrella Academy, and other Netflix shows, and like those projects, it’s an approach to storytelling that naturally aligns with binge-friendly streaming.
And yet, understanding why the Netflix model works so well for The Witcher might come down to exploring why the traditional, weekly model wouldn’t do the show justice.
Old-school meets new
In the world of television, series premieres have traditionally been make-or-break moments in a project’s existence. Fail to win over audiences with that first episode and you run the risk of losing them entirely before the second episode even airs.
Unlike movies — which can often overcome a slow or otherwise problematic first act if the rest of the film is rewarding — week-to-week TV shows need to open strong if they’re going to retain viewers.
The Witcher and other Netflix shows (like the aforementioned Stranger Things) ignore that traditional TV storytelling model in favor of a cinematic style that develops storylines and characters slowly over the entire arc of the season. In this approach, the most important, climactic moments of the story are often saved for the final episodes — what would be the third act of a film.
That’s why it’s no surprise that some TV reviewers gave The Witcher low marks for its pacing. The format doesn’t compare favorably to typical broadcast series when viewed through the lens of traditional TV story structure. (The early comparisons to Game of Thrones certainly didn’t help, given the expectations that come with being linked to one of the most popular week-to-week episodic series of all time.)
In the Netflix model, audiences have the opportunity to experience the first arc of The Witcher in the way that suits it best: As a single story that develops over eight chapters.
This allows people who are intrigued — but not entirely hooked — by the first episode of the series to launch right into the second in order to find out if they’ll like it. Audiences trying to make sense of the series’ layered storytelling structure can simply keep streaming one episode after another until it all comes together for them.
That’s simply not the case in a weekly, episodic release format, making the benefits of the binge uniquely suited to shows like The Witcher.
This is the (other) way
That’s not to say the episodic release format doesn’t bring the best out of some shows.
With The Mandalorian, Disney+ has found a way to translate all of the traditional benefits of a week-to-week release schedule to the streaming environment. Cut into vignettes that model traditional Westerns, which are a clear influence on the show, The Mandalorian’s spread out release schedule not only creates a longer window of conversation around the show, but it also makes each episode an event in and of itself, instead of the usual, one-and-done event of a Netflix season premiere.
Just like The Witcher, though, it takes a certain kind of storytelling to work with that model.
Where the first season of The Witcher is best viewed as a single story told in eight chapters, season 1 of The Mandalorian is more akin to eight, self-contained stories with a recurring theme and characters.
Sure, The Mandalorian features an over-arching narrative that (eventually) ties all of the episodes together, but tonally and thematically, each episode feels distinctly different from the others. The sixth episode in the season is a classic heist story, for example, while the fourth episode is a spin on the popular Seven Samurai tale of strangers hired to defend a town from bandits.
If it all feels a bit familiar, it’s because The Mandalorian would be right at home among the sort of TV programming that has been the standard for generations — and that’s part of what makes it so appealing. The Mandalorian is great TV based on one of the world’s most popular franchises, presented in the most familiar way possible. That certainly has a lot to do with why the show seems to hit all the right notes for audiences. (Not to mention, the terminally adorable “Baby Yoda.”)
Everything in its place
There’s no shortage of debate over which is better — the binge-friendly Netflix approach or the traditional, episodic releases favored by other streamers — but the success of The Witcher and The Mandalorian are proof that both models have their place in a rapidly expanding streaming landscape.
Good storytelling is the most important quality any project can have. But if there’s anything we can learn from the success of both of these shows, it’s that the traditional idea of TV content is more fluid now than it’s ever been. Streaming services have thrown out the long-established rules, and with them, the limitations around the stories we’re exposed to and the options we have for experiencing them.
Instead of arguing about which model is the “right” one for TV, let’s celebrate the success of both models for giving us two excellent shows in The Witcher and The Mandalorian. No matter how we watch them, they both add up to great TV.