The second time around

So I’ve been re-watching Orange is the New Black in preparation for the next season’s release and it’s got me thinking about the value of the re-watch (or the re-read or the re-play, as the situation may be).

The first time through any fictional landscape is exciting. It’s a journey of discovery. There’s inherent value and interest in its newness that can make up for (or perhaps simply obscure) the less than stellar aspects of the world. The second pass seems to me the true test of the work’s merit. The surprise factor is gone; you’ll only enjoy the experience if the world is strong enough to stand without it.

Having said that, not all re-watches are created equal. I can think of seven distinct reasons why I return to familiar worlds:

1) Mastery. This game or book or show is such a well-constructed world that I want to spend my time there. Often mastery in the characters for shows and books, and mastery of the gameplay with a video game.

2) Re-immersion. The preparation that happens before a new installment of a currently active series. More of an undertaking with books than shows or movies, which isn’t to say I haven’t done it (Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire are the ones that come to mind).

3) Nostalgia. There are games with very low practical re-play value that I keep coming back to because they feel like childhood or college, and shows I circle back to often for the same reasons.

4) Research. Far more common with books than any other kinds of media. Often I’m reading for a specific aspect of that book (world-building, voice, language, character development, etc) and because of that, this is the category most likely to alter the way I experience the world on the second take.

5) Comfort. AKA the Background Noise Re-watch, and as such only applicable to movies and TV. I find animated cartoons and sitcoms tend to fall into this category. Also crime dramas, like CSI or Law and Order—pretty much anything with the kind of plot you can follow half paying attention.

6) Completionist re-do. Typically with games, some of which I’ve dedicated an obscene number of hours to in the quest for 100% completion (I’m looking at you, Civilization II). Occasionally also with TV shows if I watched it the first time in syndication and want to see it again in order.

6) Because WTF. Twin Peaks is an example of this one. On the second watch, I was looking for clues and details, trying to make some sense of what I’d seen. A few books have taken me a couple passes before I really felt like I had a grip on them—House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is the first one that comes to mind.

…there’s a lot you can learn from spending time in a familiar world. Looking at my current habits, I’m far more likely to re-watch a TV show or re-play a video game than I am to re-read a book—and I think that’s probably a shame. The second read opens new avenues for understanding. You take your time more, mulling over the lines that jump out at you, making connections, seeing how the author built her protagonist, set up the climax, developed the themes—these are things you may not notice until you have the full context of the conclusion. The first read is visceral; on the second, I can let myself look through the story at the framework the author laid for it.

As I said, though, I’m more likely to re-watch a show, and I’ve got two multi-season re-watches going right now—Star Trek: The Next Generation along with Orange is the New Black. In the case of the former, it’s part completionist re-do, part world-building research. My original intent with the latter was simply a re-immersion watch; I was initially only going to go through the third season to get my bearings. But the first two seasons are just too good to skip. It’s mastery at the character level that took me all the way back to episode one: all of them deeply flawed, many of them inherently good, all of them dealing with their own really bad life choices in hilarious ways.

When a world is good, re-watching a series is like hanging out with old friends you haven’t seen in a while. A good world makes you feel like you belong there, whether it’s the bridge of a starship or a federal prison.

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