The fall TV season is well under way, bringing with it another crop of new series that will fight for viewers’ attention in an increasingly crowded space. It’s not enough to be good anymore, or even better than the competition; you have to be better than the favorites people already know they like and can watch repeatedly on Netflix, or Hulu, or Amazon Prime. That’s the way it usually goes in my household, though, and I bet something similar happens in yours. In a lot of ways, TV is more terrible than ever — the staggering amount of cookie-cutter reality shows built on toxic people is not helping anybody — but in others, it’s never been better, thanks both to the high-quality dramas and comedies of the past 15 years as well as our growing access to decades of shows worth revisiting. I can feel that pull whenever I check out a new series, too. It’s not just “Do I like this?” but “Do I like this better than (insert beloved show)?” It becomes not just a question of quality, but how to measure potential losses. You become obsessed with sunk costs.
It takes almost no time to realize the foolishness of that line of reasoning. How else, after all, did those other shows become my favorites if not my willingness to give them a chance? To take the time to get to know them and see what I like or don’t like? It’s not as if they arrived in my heart and mind fully formed, packed with references and stories and personal history. Loving a show is something that can only ever develop over time, whether you’re binge-watching it online or catching it live over weeks, months, or years. You’re building a relationship with the art, and TV’s tricky like that. You’re more likely to hold a show to slightly lower standards of engagement or execution in the first episode or two — or at least be more willing to forgive some weird turns — in the hope that things turn out OK in the long run, but eventually you want better payoffs for your investment.
So that’s where I find myself caught: between wanting to find new favorite shows and having to remind myself to have the patience to let those shows develop. It’s a line that requires attention to walk, and I’ve tried to come up with a few loose rules to remember as I go:
Television always grows.
No TV series arrives fully formed out of the box. None. There have been some great pilots over the years — I’ve touched before on drama and comedy standouts — but pilots are special cases. They exist as weird catch-alls that try to touch on as many possible plots and themes as possible, and television isn’t about the strong start. It’s about the development over time of stories and characters that feel rich, welcoming, and entertaining. That might be obvious for a heavily serialized drama like Breaking Bad, but it’s just as true for sitcoms like Parks and Recreation or this season’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Comedies always call back to relationships and situations as they progress. Comedy is, in fact, all about those callbacks and relationships, and you can’t get that in the first 22 minutes out of the gate. You just can’t. If some of the jokes are working, it’s enough to keep me coming back for a while until those dynamics start to gel.
Internet culture has made me impatient.
I fight every day my desire to have everything be awesome and interesting and delivered on time and flawless and surprising and perfect. (I’m a Willenial.) Everything is go go go, now now now, this must be great and witty and dark or dark-lite or winking and self-reflexive and ready to be chopped into gifs. It has to be totes the best, or I just can’t even. It has to make you feel feels. It has to make you do all sorts of things that look like emotion but are in fact disguised methods of dissection. And God help me, sometimes I fall for it. But I have to remember that it’s fine and right to give something as sprawling and complicated as a TV show time to grow. No one will arrest me if I give a show a few days, or weeks, to work out the kinks. I’ve used this metaphor before, but making a TV show is like publishing a novel one chapter at a time. You don’t get a chance to go back and fix stuff. It’s probably going to take a little time to get on its legs.
It’s OK to give something a chance.
As a result, I’m trying to be more willing to give series more time to grow on me. One of the things that’s helped is that, since I cut cable, I rely on Hulu Plus for streaming access to new series, which makes it easy to bounce around and catch up on different shows without feeling like I’m making a time commitment with live watching or a space commitment with the DVR. I wasn’t blown away by the first episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but I didn’t hate it. It was cute, it had some good jokes, and I could tell it had potential. So I’ve stayed with it, and each successive episode has been a little funnier, a little tighter, a little more engaging. This week’s Halloween-themed episode was my favorite yet, in part because it’s rewarding to see the ensemble getting better. I really like this show, and I’m so glad I’ve stuck around.
It’s OK to quit.
This is the flip side. I’ll cut a new (or new-to-me) series some slack because I want to give it time to grow, but it’s also OK to want the show to improve with time. If the first episode or two show promise, great, come back. If the next few seem to squander that promise, it’s OK to check out for a while, or permanently. It isn’t possible to watch every episode of every current show and every classic show you want to see and still have time for, you know, a job and people and the physical world. It just isn’t. Case in point: I loved the pilot and liked the first season of The Walking Dead, but a little ways into the second season, I lost interest and quit. I’ve heard from friends and critics that the show picked up a little later on, and I might get back into it via Netflix, but at the time, the plodding melodrama and awful characterizations weren’t worth the time I was spending and all the time I’d put in. I was just bored, so I bailed. After a while — and you have to feel it out on a case-by-case basis — it can feel like you’ve gone from giving a show a chance to indulging its lack of intention. I always come back to character, reaction, and motivation. If I can appreciate, respect, and enjoy where a character’s coming from and how they react to given situations, then I’ll usually keep tuning in. Cheap twists and unbelievable reactions, though, are liable to turn me off. That’s why I stopped watching Broadchurch after a few installments even though the first season was just eight episodes. Watching people do nonsensical things that had nothing to do with character or reality and everything to do with lazy writing built on red herrings started to give me an itch behind the eyes. It was too frustrating to watch. I left it and didn’t look back.
This is the best possible problem to have.
The fact that there are even this many good or great TV series to watch — current, recent, and classics from previous eras — is an embarrassment of entertainment riches. There’s just so much out there. That’s why I like to look for new series, and why I don’t mind skipping out on some to see what else is available. What I always want to do, though, is give everything a chance. I want to watch and wait and see what it has to offer. Judgment’s one thing; it’s rushing to it that makes it easy to miss what’s right in front of you.
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