How We Watch Now

Wanna Come Over and Watch TV?

The wonderful rise of the viewing party.

TV Watching Party: Brooklyn
Viewers gather for a screening of Bravo’s Work of Art at Soda Bar in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

Photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum/Flickr via Creative Commons

Earlier this fall, when the Twitter-powered juggernaut Scandal premiered its third season, the show’s devoted fans had no shortage of venues for taking in the next chapter in the lives of Olivia Pope and her team of political fix-it “gladiators.” They could watch in the privacy of their own homes, of course, or they could take their fandom public: Bars across the country hosted viewing parties for the occasion. In Washington, D.C.—the backdrop for Scandal—one such event, as described by Damon Young on the blog Very Smart Brothas, took on gala-like proportions, featuring a red carpet, a doorman, and parting gifts (which, for its overwhelmingly female crowd that evening, included lotion and gift certificates for a massage).

Not every live-viewing event was quite as fancy as that one—but they were all part of a new tradition of communal viewing centered around TV series. Not long ago, the only reason to seek out a bar or restaurant with a TV was to catch “the game.” (Note this Times piece on the encroachment of television sets into New York City bars: though from just four years ago, it only considers televised sports to be the culprit.) When televised events other than sports did warrant communal viewing, they were usually once-a-year offerings, like the Academy Awards, or season finales of major shows like Lost.

Lately, however, bars have been encouraging weekly communal viewing of everything from Game of Thrones to Mad Men. The move has coincided with the rise in “prestige” television series, especially those, like Breaking Bad, which traffic in dramatic tension, surprise, and catharsis, all of which can be fun—or therapeutic—to share with others. And there are other benefits to such experiences: For a TV consumer of certain tastes, being cable-less (as more and more people are) isn’t necessarily a hindrance. In New York City, for example, even a relatively omnivorous TV-watcher can find watering holes where she can take in her favorite programs, from True Blood to The Walking Dead to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. And if you’re lucky, you might also get to indulge in some themed drink and food specials in the process.

There’s also the opportunity to rub shoulders with your fellow fans. I recently experienced my first communal viewing of a TV series episode in a public space—the show was Breaking Bad (specifically, the explosive “To’hajiilee” episode); the venue was a moderately-sized pub in Brooklyn. By the time the episode began, the bar was standing room only, with probably about 150 people packed in. Prior to arriving, I had been concerned that I would have to contend with a large group of distractible patrons who would in turn distract me with their chatter, or worse, those obnoxious viewers who throw in their two cents after every turning point. But the atmosphere was astonishingly quiet, save for the TVs blaring Walter White’s furiously unraveling saga. A couple of times during the course of the hour, some uninformed would-be patron would blunder into the bar looking to grab a mere drink, jabbering away to a friend all the while. But these interlopers were shushed and shamed by the Breaking Bad fans, exiting as quickly as they had come.

It was a highly enjoyable experience, one that felt unashamedly cult-ish and satisfying—collective cheers and audible gasps were shared during the incredible Mexican standoff that ended the episode. Overhearing other patrons banter during commercial breaks about their affinity for “Team Walt,” “Team Jesse,” or “Team Hank” was the superior, real-life version of reading an endless stream of live-tweets espousing the same characters. After that night, I knew exactly where I’d be checking out the series finale. Of course, I had to camp out at the bar three hours early to ensure that my friends and I got good seats for “Felina”—which is one reason hosting these parties must appeal to bar owners. (When I called ahead just to be sure they’d be airing the finale, the employee on the other end happily replied, “Yes we are. We’ve aired it every Sunday for the last couple of seasons! We’ll see you then!” He seemed just as excited about the finale as he was about all the business he’d be getting that evening.) But the wait was a small price to pay for sharing a piece of television history with a room full of true Jesse Pinkman fans.

Of course, communal viewing isn’t limited to public spaces. Scandal has inspired at least a couple of my friends to host weekly viewing parties at their own homes. The television industry itself has sought to further audience participation, no doubt to boost ratings during initial airings: ABC’s got the perfect themed recipes for your upcoming Scandal viewing; the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has tips for hosting parties year-round; AMC lays out how to “throw the swankiest Mad Men bash on your block!” Even Martha Stewart has advice on how to coordinate the perfect “fall viewing party.” (“Make sure your sofa is stocked with blankets and pillows.”) For those who don’t wish to be limited to the tastes of the masses (maybe you and your friends love watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia together), this is a happy alternative. It also fosters a more intimate experience while still remaining communal—you’re surrounded by friends or acquaintances, and audible reactions, even the occasional bon mot, are more welcome, and often encouraged. At a viewing party for the recent premiere of VH1’s TLC biopic at a friend’s apartment, homemade cocktails and hors d’oeuvres flowed, as did chuckles and quips.

In the past decade or so, TV watching has in some ways become a more solitary act: Thanks to the DVR, to Netflix, and to the proliferation of tablets and smartphones, we’re able to watch what we want, when we want, with little need to accommodate friends or family’s viewing habits. Maybe that’s why collective viewing holds appeal: It offers a chance to bring back some of the old camaraderie, and simultaneity, of the TV-watching experience. We may be more disconnected from our own TV sets and cable boxes than ever before—but the desire to connect with others through our shared pop cultural affections remains. There’s nothing quite like bonding with a complete stranger over your hatred for Breaking Bad’s Todd Alquist. And as fun as it is to watch Scandal on a second screen, even the snarkiest tweet is a poor substitute for the real, live, exasperated groans brought on by Olivia and Fitz’s toxic relationship.