Streaming TV Is Still Missing One of Cable’s Best Features

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A couple of nights ago, I got into a mood that I’m sure every person reading this understands: I was too wired to go to sleep but I was also too tired to watch anything too serious or mentally taxing. Generally when I’m in that kind of headspace I want to watch some kind of televisual comfort food, and for me that’s one of the shows I watched as a kid: The Simpsons, Mystery Science Theater 3000, or especially Seinfeld. I’ve seen every episode already, and know many of them by heart. I just want to zone out and laugh for 30 minutes at some random episode of something I love.

Thanks to streaming, all of these shows are available instantly on demand. The full run of The Simpsons is streaming on Disney+, dozens of episodes of MST3K are available on Shout!FactoryTV, and Seinfeld is over on Netflix. That’s not the problem. The problem is the word random. On streaming, random can be frustratingly difficult.

That’s partly because random is the opposite of everything streaming television stands for and was built to satisfy. These sites and apps were created as an alternative to traditional broadcast and cable television, where viewers are held at the mercy of programmers and schedules. 20 years ago, if you wanted to watch an episode of Seinfeld, you had to know when and where it was on. You had to plan your viewing or program a VCR to record the show (and hope that the VCR actually worked). Later, most of these classic sitcoms were released on home video, but that still meant if you wanted to watch them on demand you had to leave your home and drive to a video store to rent or buy a copy.

These sites are designed to offer customers unlimited choices and easier access, and that is a wonderful thing in many cases. Binging The Sopranos is a lot easier these days when every single episode is available on HBO Max, compared to the ancient times when you had to rent the episodes one disc and a handful of episodes at a time, then pray when you returned to the store for the next disc that someone else hadn’t already taken it out. (You know you’re getting old when you start telling “Back in my day!” stories to your children, and they involve racing to the video store before it closed to rent the last disc of Alias Season 4.)

But too much choice can actually be sort of exhausting. It may sound strange but it’s true; part of the appeal of watching Seinfeld or The Simpsons in the old days was not choosing the episode, and simply accepting whatever the roulette wheel of syndication offered.  Sure, sometimes you got stuck with a bad show. But with these series, basically all the episodes were good. Plus, shows like Seinfeld were not designed for systematic binging. They were meant to run in any order, and to be consumed casually.

Admittedly, there are times when a syndicated rerun of “The Contest” is preferable to, say, “The Puerto Rican Day Parade.” But watching an episode you wouldn’t necessarily pick has its upsides too. Sometimes it reminds you of some classic moment that you’d forgotten, or you appreciate a joke you didn’t even get the first time around. And it’s definitely more interesting than just watching the same handful of favorite episodes over and over.

Warner Bros. TelevisionWarner Bros. Television

If you want to recreate the syndicated Seinfeld experience on Netflix, you’re basically out of luck. The same goes for shows on Disney+, Prime Video, Paramount+, or Peacock. There are some free streaming sites that do mimic old cable television; Pluto TV offers entire “channels” dedicated to endless reruns of shows like Family Ties or Happy Days and there’s no pausing or fast forwarding or skipping to the next episode. It’s close to ideal, but not quite; there are also commercials, the part of the cable television experience I don’t miss.

At least one streaming service is getting the hint that sometimes you don’t want to choose what to watch. HBO Max recently added a shuffle button for series like Friends. I just clicked it and it sent me to Season 4 Episode 1, “The One With the Jellyfish.” That’s great. This sort of feature should be standard on every streaming site. Now if we could make sure these shows are all shown in their original aspect ratio rather than cropped for 16:9 televisions we’d really be getting somewhere.

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