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?