Hope-watching vs. hate-watching in TV’s new Golden Age

A little over a year ago, my wife wondered why I was still sitting down every Monday night for “How I Met Your Mother,” given how much I would complain about it to her afterwards.

“Is this one of those hate-watching things?” she asked.

I told her that life was too short for hate-watching – especially in this new Golden Age of Too Much Good TV – and that I was with “HIMYM” til the end because the show gave me enough occasional glimpses of what it was like when it was good that I kept sticking around to see if they could get it together one more time, especially for the finale. (As it turned out, no they couldn't.)

“Oh, I get it,” she said. “You're not hate-watching. You're hope-watching!”

And there it was: Hope-watching. It isn't the act of enduring a bad show for the sole purpose of mocking it, but rather sticking with it out of of the belief, founded or not, that there is a good show hiding inside the bad one – and that you want to be there at the moment when the good version finds its way out of the bad.

It's more of a roller coaster ride than a hate-watch. Hate-watching takes you on one even, surly track as the same things aggravate you over and over again. Hope-watches have great highs and lows, as reasons to believe are swiftly replaced by reasons to doubt, and vice versa. One minute, you're gnashing your teeth and asking, “Why the hell am I still watching this show?” The next, you're fist-pumping and saying, “That's why I'm still watching!” The former emotion may be more frequent than the latter, but the latter is so powerful it gives you strength, for a while, to push through the rest.

Sometimes, the lines can blur between a hate-watch and a hope-watch, particularly if the latter started out as the former. Few people came to “Smash” wanting or expecting it to be bad, and can still sing the praises of its first episode, before shuddering at the memory of what came after. (See also “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” where the idea of Aaron Sorkin doing another TV show about the making of a TV show was far better than the actuality of it.) And the snuffing of hope can make the hate burn even brighter than when you tune into something you expect to be bad.

And I can think of many hope-watches that paid off enormously. “Parks and Recreation” had a lot of problems in its first season, but I stuck with it out of the belief that Greg Daniels, Mike Schur and that cast could eventually turn it into something great, and they did. Even as others were pointing out the show's many early flaws in its first few weeks, I stubbornly insisted there were the elements of something special in there; when we got to the first season finale, “Rock Show,” I felt thrilled at the first sign that I was right.

Lots of classic shows don't start out that way, so you have to have hope. I rode with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” through an uneven debut season because I liked Joss Whedon's dialogue and Sarah Michelle Gellar; its first finale gave me a reassuring feeling much like I got from “Rock Show.” Even as a teenager with questionable taste in entertainment, I knew that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was awful at the start, but I was so happy to have a new “Star Trek” show, regardless of quality, that I hung around long enough for “TNG” to cease being a guilty pleasure and become a genuine one.

The hope-watch doesn't just come with new shows, but with veterans that have seen better days. With “HIMYM,” I stuck it out to the (very) bitter end because of those rare moments, and even episodes, that suggested the creative team hadn't completely lost sight of what made the show special, but my hopes were crushed by that terrible final season and misguided finale. “Dexter” was another one that could occasionally lean back and deliver a vintage fastball, and as a result I watched a whole lot of terrible late-period episodes. But I would suffer through a half-dozen equivalents of Dexter Morgan becoming a lumberjack in order to be present for something like this wonderful final season of “Justified.” There, every bit of hope I invested in the show after a tedious stretch the previous year paid off, and I was glad to have been there the whole time to see that moment when the switch flipped back from mediocre to great.

And then there was “Sons of Anarchy,” which I hope-watched in its first season as it figured out its strengths and weaknesses, loved in its second as it mastered itself,  then hope-watched again over the next few seasons as it all fell apart. I wanted to believe that that second season level was still attainable, rather than accepting it as an anomaly. So I hope-watched for a long time, then I hate-watched briefly, and then I mostly stopped watching altogether.

This season, I hope-watched a few shows before giving up. With FOX's “Gotham,” for instance, there wasn't a coherent show there at the start, but I liked some of the individual pieces enough to want to see if they could ever fit together properly. Instead, the show only became more cluttered, and leaned more heavily on the parts I disliked, until I finally threw in the towel. NBC's “Marry Me,” meanwhile, came from the creator and one of the stars of “Happy Endings” – a comedy I was rewarded for following through a rocky start. As of the time NBC put it on hiatus, “Marry Me” had yet to make a similar leap forward. The idea of it gave me hope; the actuality of it did little for me.

This recent glut of quality TV has made it much harder to hope-watch, because there are rarely enough hours in the day (even for someone with my job) to watch all the shows that already have their act together, let alone stick with ones that are just bundles of unrealized potential at this point. I used to hope-watch for entire seasons, sometimes even longer. Now, two bad episodes in a row – or even a pilot I wasn't crazy about for a show debuting at a busy time of year – can be enough for me to abandon hope and move on to the next thing. Even today, I probably would have stuck it out through five bumpy “Parks and Rec” episodes, but I can't imagine keeping hope alive to stay with something like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” long enough for it to stop being awful.

And as content providers make more episodes available upfront – whether Netflix and Amazon debuting entire seasons at once, or cable channels sending critics lots of episodes of new shows to review – hope can only take you so far. FX sent critics nine episodes of “The Comedians,” and I had my fill after three, even though one critic who watched them all told me it improved by the end. When I recently mentioned on Twitter that the early episodes of Netflix's “Bloodline” didn't thrill me, someone asked why I wouldn't just watch the rest to see if it got better (which he insisted it did); I replied that while I might catch up eventually, I'd rather go with something I already knew I liked. When there are so many good shows on all the time – not to mention complete runs of some of the best TV shows ever made, all ready to stream with the click of a button and the right subscription – why gamble that an unknown quantity can realize its potential when it's easy to find a sure thing?

You could argue that the ease of technology has made hope-watching less necessary – that all someone has to do is wait until they hear a show got better and they can catch up quickly – but the abundance of choice has complicated that. I have friends who swear by Starz's “Spartacus,” but I had such a viscerally negative reaction to the first couple of episodes that I always chose other options over revisiting that one. That's why I can't judge anyone who refuses to hope-watch, or to come back to a show after promises of improvement from those who did. Life's too short, you know?

But even in this age where I can watch almost anything I want, on demand, the moment I get wind that it's gotten good, I think hope-watching has value. There's a specific and visceral satisfaction that comes from being there at the price moment a bad show turns good – or, in the case of something like “The Wire,” from realizing you've been seeing something great all along and just had to learn how to look at it – just as there is in sticking with a woeful sports team long enough for them to turn things around. I'm a completist with my shows and with my teams (see my failed attempts to quit on the sorry, inexcusable New York Knickerbockers), and I recognize that many of you are blessed to be without that gene.

In sports, I don't blame anyone who doesn't want to subject themselves to years, if not decades, of failure and stomach-churning playoff losses, but the victories tend to have far more impact for the people who stayed on the bandwagon the whole time. With TV, I've watched shows figure themselves out in real time (“Breaking Bad,” for instance), and I've also gone back after the fact to marathon shows that improved; the latter approach got me to the good stuff quicker, but the feeling of seeing potential fulfilled wasn't nearly as powerful.

A man once said that hope is a good thing – maybe the best of things. But hope, and time, are increasingly precious commodities for the modern TV fan. I'd love to be able to stick with every series that has a glimmer of promise, just as I'd love to tell you to stay patient with those shows, or ones from the past that took a while to get going. Instead, we have to pick and choose what we'll keep watching and, well, hope our trust gets rewarded.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

NOTE: After this column was published, it was pointed out to me that Previously.TV has had a recurring feature called Hope-Watch going back to early last year. So they beat my wife to this particular punch.