Stop me if you’ve heard these before:
“It doesn’t really get good until episode six!”
“If you can just make it to the second season, you’re in for a treat!”
“The wait is worth it, trust me!”
“It gets better! Really!”
I’ve heard them all a million times. And I’ve said them all a few thousand times. But it’s becoming harder to hear it these days without a good deal of eye-rolling. It Gets Good In Six Episodes? Great. Now let me get back to the 37 shows I’m still trying to find time to binge that I’ve heard are already good.
Shows taking time to become good is just the way TV works. Occasionally, you’ll find a Sopranos or a Cheers or a Mary Tyler Moore Show that arrives fully-formed at the peak of its powers, but most shows are evolving organisms, where the creators need a while to figure out how to best tell their stories, use their actors, work within constraints of budget or schedule or network, etc. Patience is required to see which shows live up to their full potential and which never get there; sometimes you get a Parks and Recreation (which went from mediocre to great after its first season) or an Americans (which went from good to great during that same second year transition), but other times, you might spend a season-plus waiting for a sitcom like Up All Night to stop being somehow less than the sum of its talented parts, only for it to be canceled before that happens.
My wife dubbed the practice “hope-watching,” and I’ve done plenty of it over the years as both amateur couch potato and professional. As satisfying as it can be to watch a Cougar Town successfully pivot away from the terrible premise of its title and become a charming hang-out comedy, it can be maddening to then try to convince people to give it another chance, or to ask them to endure the relentlessly bleak first season of The Leftovers (which I love, even as I understand why many do not) in order to get to the crazy brilliance of what came after.
But, especially among a certain intense brand of TV viewer, the It Gets Good By Episode XX narrative has become so ingrained that occasionally showrunners themselves will appropriate it, like the way Joss Whedon did so many interviews in advance of Dollhouse’s premiere insisting the series didn’t find itself until its sixth episode(*).
(*) In that case, the show didn’t really get better — at least not consistently — until well into the next season, after the cancellation writing was on the wall and Whedon was free to make the show he actually wanted to make. Improvement isn’t always linear.
Few things in my job give me more satisfaction than seeing potential achieved and patience rewarded, but I feel like we’re entering a weird and frustrating phase of the It Gets Good (Eventually) phenomenon, exacerbated by Peak TV, by the “it’s really a 10-hour movie” approach, and by the way that It Gets Good has itself become so familiar and accepted that it feels like some shows factor a degree of hope-watching into the creative process, with the hope-to-reward ratio getting wildly out of whack.
Peak TV alone makes patience much harder. When Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted 20 years ago, the overall volume of scripted shows was vastly smaller (cable drama didn’t really exist for another few months, with the premiere of HBO’s Oz), and the number of other shows threading this particular needle of genre and demographic was essentially zero. That first Buffy season has many bumps along the way as Whedon figures out how to make a TV show, and one with these actors and characters, but it was easy to stick with it because of the obvious potential at a time when there weren’t 500-plus scripted series being pumped out each year, not to mention easily-clickable libraries of much of TV history as added competition. Tell someone today about a show that doesn’t quite find itself until its first season finale, and they’ll likely either ask if they can just skip ahead to that, or shrug it off altogether under the heading of “Life’s too short, and my DVR’s backlog is way too long.”
Or consider something like Seinfeld, which didn’t really come into its own until its third season, albeit with promising hints before it got there. In the early ’90s, with no one paying attention, Larry David and company had plenty of time to get it exactly right; today, those uneven first few years would feel like an eternity the Show About Nothing might not survive. Once, I would have torn my hair out at people not wanting to devote the time to hope-watch; these days, I cast no judgment on anyone just trying to stay afloat in this flood of interesting programming. A&E’s Bates Motel didn’t really make the leap until midway through its fourth season, and while that last batch of episodes was terrific, expecting an audience in this era to wait that long for you to stop fumbling around in the dark feels like an awfully big ask.
Part of the problem with saying a show gets better after episode XX is what exactly “better” means. Parks and Rec and Breaking Bad went from uneven to Hall of Fame caliber within a season or so, but so many recent cases involve shows that evolve in time to being somewhere between pretty good and very good. That can be rewarding in and of itself if you happen to like the genre or cast or creative team in question — I enjoy both hard-boiled cop shows and ambitious science fiction, and was pleased when Amazon’s Bosch and Netflix’s Sense8 overcame rough beginnings to scratch those respective itches — but I can’t fault busy TV viewers (or busy fellow critics) for insisting that they’ll only tough it out for a huge payoff like those later Leftovers seasons, or Halt and Catch Fire, BoJack Horseman, Banshee, or You’re the Worst, all of which became genuinely great after early trial-and-error. We all lead hectic lives — even those of us paid to watch and write about TV — and if the reward for sitting through hours of blandness, or worse, isn’t an unforgettable level of creative fireworks(*), then is it worth it?
(*) Case in point: another Whedon family show, Agents of SHIELD, which I stuck with out of combined loyalty to comic books and Whedon, despite it being a very poor man’s NCIS for a while. It had a breakthrough late in its first season, but was at best a fun diversion after that, and went through enough relative highs and lows that I eventually lost patience and stopped, because the best parts just weren’t good enough to be worth the rest. Fans tell me this recent half-season was a new pinnacle — It Gets Good (Again!) — and while I have no reason to doubt them, I also don’t feel regret over pulling the ripcord during one of the many middling phases. Unlimited TV choice plus limited time; it happens.
When you combine Peak TV with the “10-hour movie” nonsense that has somehow trickled from the streaming services down to cable and even some network TV, It Gets Good After XX can be even more frustrating. It’s one thing for a new show to require time to find its footing and work through unforeseen creative issues on its way to XX, and another for a new show to deliberately spend hour after hour on narrative throat-clearing, just because it thinks it can — or should. FX’s new crack origin story Snowfall doesn’t actually show anyone buying, selling, using, making, or even mentioning crack until its seventh episode, which winds up not coincidentally being the It Gets Good point. Another reviewer didn’t make it that far; I can’t blame him for bailing sooner given the abundance of choice and the generic nature of the early episodes, which left him feeling like this:
AMC’s Preacher basically treated its entire first season as a premise pilot; the second season is much more entertaining, but there was no good narrative excuse for taking so long to get there. An upcoming crime drama devotes its first two hours to laborious set-up that an actual movie — or a smarter TV show — could have blazed through in 15 minutes or less; it becomes more interesting after that, but if I wasn’t professionally obligated, I doubt I’d have made it that far.
Even in the rare cases of shows that can make the “it’s really a 13-hour movie” approach work, It Gets Good becomes complicated. I always tell people thinking of watching The Wire for the first time to sample at least four episodes — preferably in one or two sittings — before deciding if it’s for them. The show doesn’t magically improve in that fourth installment; it’s just much easier to appreciate all that’s happened to that point. But telling someone they need four hours to decide if they like a TV show seems much more burdensome today than when The Wire debuted 15 years ago.
So when is a fair point these days to stop waiting for a show to Get Good and move onto something else? There’s no clear mathematical formula for it, as either reviewer or plain viewer. I’ve occasionally turned off pilots halfway through as clearly not for me(*), with the understanding that I could eventually miss out on something I’d like. But I’ve also hope-watched entire seasons of TV I wasn’t really enjoying out of the stubborn belief that they had to get better; sometimes, I was right, and sometimes, I was just out several hours of my life.
(*) In case you were wondering, I don’t review those shows. One Peak TV bonus for critics: the pressure to write about everything is gone, because we all know it’s impossible.
What it ultimately comes down to is instinct, and scheduling, and maybe a bit of help. If you’re enjoying some element of an otherwise underwhelming show and feel like it has the potential to radically improve, maybe you give it half a season, particularly when things are relatively slow, Peak TV-wise. You could also simply outsource all the hope-watching to your friends or Twitter, and only try shows that you’ve already heard are great — I’ve run down a handful of past and present shows that definitively Got Good, and the points at which they did so — but the danger to that approach is that if everybody waits, or quits during the inevitable growing pains, those shows may die due to low viewership. (RIP, Rubicon. RIP, Sense8.)
A few of the best shows ever made required no patience, nor loud promises that It Gets Good 6 episodes/2 seasons/37 hours into things. Many more needed that time, and the audience’s indulgence, to evolve into that greatness. Damon Lindelof co-created one show in Lost that was instantly beloved and one show in The Leftovers that took time to fully access its brilliance; when I asked him recently what he would say to Leftovers newcomers who are afraid of sitting through that heavy first year, he replied, “You can’t really achieve anything truly special or unique without a certain degree of suffering… You just gotta power through.”
At the same time, showrunners have to be prepared for less viewer patience than ever, and to stop dawdling on the way to what the show is actually about because they think they’re working in an exciting new storytelling model. They assume they have a captive audience who will sit through anything because a recommendation engine told them to, or because The Wire and Breaking Bad magically made people patient for every show that moves at a similar pace, even if they’re not remotely as brilliant as The Wire or Breaking Bad were even in their respective It Gets Good Eventually phases. That’s not the way it works. We all have a lot going on, in both our TV and non-TV lives, and if you don’t leave enough breadcrumbs in the early going, your viewers will just wander off to watch, or do, something else. While outlining this post, I tweeted a few things about the phenomenon, phrasing it as “It Gets Better After Six Episodes” — to which many people replied with incredulous variations on, “Six? If it’s not good after two, or even one, I’m out, pal.”
Most shows get better to some degree as they go along, in the same way that most people get better at their jobs the more that they do them. But how much they improve, how quickly, and how patient the audience is willing to be all make for some complicated and difficult math. Nobody wants to miss out on something great, but how much time do they have to invest when so many great things are a click or two away?
It Gets Good, but it also gets much harder to convince people to care.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com