Watching the West Wing Backwards

I once watched the whole of the West Wing backwards. I’m not recommending that anyone else try doing it; it would be rather silly. I started by watching a few episodes where Matt Santos got elected – it was during the most recent US election – and I just kept going. I found myself in the final series.

I decided to watch the series before. I liked it. At the start of a series they’re wrapping up something I saw resolved years ago. Then they move on and on to a culmination which will be resolved last week. It was quite entertaining, really. It was like meeting up with a great group of old friends again.

It’s not that I watch the episodes in reverse chronological order, or even the discs from back to front. I still watch each series in the right order; I just watched the series in the wrong order. Can’t imagine doing it with a series I haven’t watched forwards many times already: That would just be confusing.

A similar thing happened when I was a child: I watched the two Crocodile Dundee films in the wrong order. I know that there are more than two of them now, but there were only two then. It seemed to make more sense that way. I still have no idea why that would be: it was thirty years ago now.

Is this contrary need of mine to do something I cannot imagine anyone else doing some kind of attention –seeking behaviour? Does it matter that I am doing it, if I am not telling people about it, whether in person or on my poorly subscribed blog? I’m currently watching Battlestar Galactica, but I’m doing it forward: have I told anybody about that? Well, yes, actually: I told my mother about it.

We live in a post spoon-fed era of TV consumption. We can buy box sets, we can binge on streams of TV shows. There is no-one telling us which order to consume anything in, so we are more and more suited to picking our own schedule. I watched the most recent series of Game of Thrones several months after it was released, because that fit my TV watching habits / restrictions better than not.

In fact, it seems rather archaic, absurd even, when hyper popular TV shows like Rick and Morty are only made available on a week by week basis. What are we to do with ourselves between episodes? Binge on an old series of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt or The Expanse? Pretty much, at least if you look at my Netflix history. Limitations begetting freedom is never the way TV worked before.

Is this non-linear methodology of viewership a natural product of the way TV is scheduled? Is the fact that we can always find a random episode of Friends, rather than waiting for a systematic rerun, changing our need for linear story telling? Can we just hop in to a familiar series at any juncture?

Recently, in a rented holiday apartment, looking for some brightly coloured images to go with our late night beer and crisps, my partner and I bumped in to some old episodes of The Big Bang Theory on E4. We watched double episodes from series 5 in Reykjavik, in lieu of series 11 episodes which were recording at home. We slipped between time streams with ease, but it did feel rather odd to see the characters in a previous mode of existence. We needed a refresher of time lines at times.

Could broadcasters just play out an entire TV series out of sequence without repercussions? No, but only just. The fact of the matter is that it has happened many times over the years, especially in the early days of series which would then go on to be either A – massively popular, or B – forgotten. It can very easily either alienate viewers or not be spotted for several decades after initial broadcast.

On the other hand, it added a real twist to a TV series I could almost quote. It was like watching it through a Memento filter. I just wish there was a button on Netflix, Amazon Video or Hulu – or on a DVD player, if you want to go full Memento – where you could tell it to shuffle chapters, episodes or series, just for a touch of added head-fuckery. If you see this on sale, tell them I thought of it first.

This is not a feature I would suggest for first time viewings, unless you are particularly in the mode for rampant masochism. It would be more than the average human being could necessarily cope with after bingeing eight hours of Mr Robot, and deciding whether 4am is really the best time to put another randomly chosen episode on. And I’m imagining someone relatively abstemious here, too.

I could imagine it as a fun stoner game, a bunch of friends gathering together, getting their collective herb on, and trying to follow the increasingly erratic adventures of the randomised kids of Stranger Things. If heads could actually explode from confusion, this is the time when it would be most likely to happen. It makes a change from late night trips to the petrol station, for crisps and chocolate.

Could this approach be extended to other areas of our lives, I wonder? I already take a pretty dim view of linear narratives, as any frequent reader of my travel blogs or my fiction will attest. Could, however, you modularly randomise the tasks in any given operation? As with all things, my first thought is cooking. And that answers that. No you couldn’t. Imagine stuffing a lemon in to the back cavity of a chicken after it had been cooked: that would do very little to develop its flavour profile.

My second thought tends to be music. Putting an album on shuffle is something I do on a regular basis, and it helps me find my way in to an album more easily than listening to it straight. Often, a band or an artist will design an album to be listened to in a certain order, and I just drift off.

Then comes drinking: Imagine a person who drinks slowly at the start of a night out, building up gradually, to having a shot or two before heading home for bed. Possibly via a kebab shop. Now put that through the Memento filter, and either they’re blotto in five minutes by the shots or they’re floored by a donna attack, and can’t handle a pint. Perhaps we do do things in order for a reason.

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