How Long Should You Stick With a New TV Show?
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How Long Should You Stick With a New TV Show?

By Daniel Carlson | Think Pieces | October 24, 2013 | Comments ()


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.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Lee

    5 episodes

  • Discoshrew

    Its also worth mentioning who is involved with the show, aside from finding many parts of it funny anyway, the primary reason i'm sticking with Brooklyn Nine-Nine is because its from the creators of Parks and Recreation (which itself was pretty terrible in its first six episodes before becoming incredible).

    Also you can always go here to find out what new/old shows are worth your time...

  • Whenever I feel that a show has some potential, but maybe isn't the greatest right out of the box, I try to gauge how many episodes I should give it to get better. I tend to try to give a show a Five Episode Try and see how I feel.

  • e jerry powell

    My problem is that I keep shows from force of habit and usually because they're what I find to be best in a particular time slot (explaining why I stuck with "Top Model" for more than even six episodes -- and no, I will not be embarrassed by it). I gave "Weeds" two seasons more than I should have because of when it was on as much as for having watched five seasons. I didn't make the same mistake with "Dexter."

  • Jessie456

    I usually give a show about six episodes or so for me to decide to stick through it, because I find by episode 6 most shows have heard the feedback from the audience and have begun to adjust accordingly (not an entire 180, but realize some of its strength and weaknesses and plans accordingly). Comedies I usually have a harder time getting into, so I usually wait to hear the feedback from other people to see if it is something I would like. And, like many others, if I hear a show is good then I can always catch up on it over the summer.

  • Dita Svelte

    I think 'Internet culture has made me impatient' is just code for 'Life is too short to sit around waiting to fall in love.' Which, at a certain age - probably after you have fallen in love for realsies - is absolutely fair enough. Besides, if you do get to the point where you feel you are missing out, the infatuation of marathoning brings its own intoxication.

    I find these days that whilst I give new shows a chance to breathe, once they start to suck hard, it's time to break up with no regrets. Dexter 8, Downton Abbey 4, etc. (Heresy I know but I am even tottering with Parks and Rec because I find the characters increasingly rote and a little dull. I would much rather the cast move on. It's like the last four seasons of Weeds vs one perfect season of OITNB.)

  • Art3mis

    I feel the exact same way about Parks and Rec! I loved that show so hard for several years, and starting sometime last season just totally lost interest. It's not bad now, but it just feels like it's run its course and I don't really feel invested anymore.

  • Green_Eggs_and_Hamster

    For me, that is the beauty of Pajiba. It tells me repeatedly what to watch. Take New Girl for instance. I watched the first couple shows, and thought it sucked, so I quit watching. But then it kept getting talked about here, and eventually, I went back to it and was rewarded. Not that Pajiba is perfect, I don't care how great you think Walking Dead is, I do not do Zombies. You are not going to make me watch a show where people get eaten, even on only a semi-occasional basis. I just wont do it. I really really hate watching Zombies. They freak me the hell out.

    The point is, I never feel bad about quitting a show since I know if it is really good, I will find out and get to go back an catch up on it sometime later.

  • your last point is the important one. nowadays if something turns out to be good you can always stream or rent it.

  • Untamed

    Gawd, Pajiba used to be so edgy and interesting.

  • Art3mis

    I'll stick with a new show until it starts to feel like a chore to watch it. Much as I love him, Michael J. Fox's show may have hit that point for me -- the episode sits on my DVR all week as I repeatedly consider watching it and instead opt for a repeat of something I really enjoyed. Nashville is in that territory, too.

    And for me, it's not a problem of having too many other good shows. I tore through a lot of the obvious Netflix options over the past couple of years, and as good shows have gone off the air and been replaced by mediocre-at-best ones, I've suddenly got less TV I'm truly interested in than any time in recent memory. I noticed this year that I'd significantly lowered my standards for what I would keep watching -- in better TV-years, there's no chance that I'd still be tuning in to The Crazy Ones or The Blacklist.

    For all the talk about this being the golden age of television, I think the problem is that it contains a handful of truly fantastic, best-ever shows--primarily on cable--and a lot fewer just regular good shows. It seems like networks have ceded the good serialized drama market to cable channels because they know they can't (or it would be too difficult) to compete with the kind of show a 12-episode season and much higher budget can produce, and comedies have gotten worse and worse (both in quality and ratings) over the same period. That means we get Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Game of Thrones, all of which I'd put up there with the best shows of all time, but at the cost of a dozen shitty crime-lab procedurals and reality shows.

    Look at the networks' lineup for seasons 10-15 years ago. In 2000, for example, you had The West Wing, The Practice, The X-Files, NYPD Blue, Felicity, Buffy, Angel, ER, Gilmore Girls, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Frasier, Spin City, Friends, Will & Grace, The Drew Carrey Show, That 70s Show, and Malcolm in the Middle. I didn't love all of those shows, but there's no way there are 17 currently airing network shows better than that lineup. And as good as HBO/Showtime/AMC are, (a) they run super short seasons, and (b) they're generally not good at comedies.

  • I've been thinking about this a lot this season. I'm currently trying to decide whether to drop The Tomorrow People. I love the concept, the special effects are fantastic for a tv show, but I'm not invested in any of the characters as of yet. I'm thinking 2 more eps, and if I'm still uninterested, I'm out. There are too many good series on Netflix and the like for me to waste my time on something I'm just not feeling.

  • I will give a drama three episodes. I will often give a sitcom many more. Not only because sitcoms take up half of the time but also because most sitcoms are about the ensemble and that often takes time to gel. Of course, I will absolutely come back to a show if I hear good things about it.

  • Guest

    I usually watch until I think of the series, and don't really care to know the future development or what's going to happen next. Then I'm out.
    (Haven't finished reading the article yet)

  • Plus, like you said, with so many options for watching shows later (when you have the time or inclination) it's so much easier to just let something go and try to give it another chance later if you hear that it got any better. Specially if you feel like something's going to be canceled soon. Why get invested?

  • I totally agree that you have to give shows a chance. But the first episode or two has to give me something to hold on to and keep me watching. An interesting premise, a good cast, a good vibe. Something.

    For example, with New Girl I watched the first couple of episodes and nearly quit. I hated Jess and the general cutesy vibe of the show, but I decided to stick around, almost entirely because of Schmidt and Nick. And it got so much better! And now it's one of my favorite shows. But there was something there that made me want to come back.

    But with something like Agents of SHIELD? The first episode was just not very good. I liked Coulson and I thought I'd give it another shot, even though I didn't really want to. And the second episode was terrible. And the third. And I realized I liked nothing about the show and that none of it was making me excited or wanting to see more. So I quit. I'm fully prepared to give it another chance later on if I hear that it's getting genuinely better (and that'll have to be from a LOT of people, like what happened with The Walking Dead) but as of now...why waste an hour trying to like something I have zero desire to keep watching?

    And I think most people don't even give it an episode or two. Five minutes, maybe. Sometimes that's all it takes to decide that something's not for you.

  • #firstworldproblems

    Always the best kind.

  • Pentadactyl

    Depends on how egregious the flaws I see early on are and how pervasive I think they're going to be. If they've gotten something basic and important to me wrong right off the bat, that's just not a good sign. I don't mind watching fluff shows, so I err on the more lenient side if there's some part of it I'm still enjoying. On the other hand, really intense shows scare me. So even with the quality guarantee, I still haven't picked up Wire or Breaking Bad or Boardwalk Empire. Always feel like I'm not sure I can handle that level of despair right then.

  • Pawesl

    I typically do 5 eps. I dont know why that number but it just feels well rounded to me. Honestly most shows i get into I typically am bored with the first 2 or 3 eps. I've felt like quitting during many pilots but kept pushing along. If by ep 5 im fast forwarding through most o the show then its no longer worth my time.

    Also along with one of your points people have got to learn to give up on shows way past their prime so they can be put out of their misery *cough greysanatomycough*. Don't punish yourself out of some misguided loyalty just cause you were there from the beginning. Its okay to let go sometimes.

  • JustOP

    Problem is that there are some shows that do just catch you straight away. Game of Thrones enthralled me after one episode. The first episode of Archer guaranteed my continual commitment to the show. Then there's the Walking Dead, which had a fantastic first season.

    Nowadays I have so little time that something has to be worth watching, or start off pretty high, straight away. I'm not going to put time into something abysmal (cough Agents of Shield cough) because there's better things I could be watching.

  • fribbley

    I can't figure out why I'm still watching The Crazy Ones, but I'll hang onto The Michael J. Fox Show until it closes up shop.

  • Three_nineteen

    If Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar weren't on The Crazy Ones, it would be a nice little show. James Wolk, Old Christine's Brother and Girl Who Was Fired From The Mindy Project are all very good and work well together, and scenes with just them are funny.

    SMG is kind of OK, I guess. I know her character is supposed to be high-strung and neurotic, but something about her performance seems off. Can an actor look uptight and tense about playing uptight and tense?

    Robin Williams is just bad, but since he mostly stopped doing voices now he dropped down from "makes me want to puke" to "three steps away from being barely acceptable". In my book, at least.

  • Jezzer

    I think "uptight and tense" is SMG's natural state, so I'm surprised she's not nailing it.

  • Guest

    How Long Should You Stick With a New TV Show?

    As long as you like it and you see potential. Just be prepared to have you heart broken when they take it away.

    Pours one out for (this list could go on and on but I'll keep it to two recent ones):

    D.T.T.B.I.A.23 and Ben & Kate (Yeah I know but if it was still on Dakota Johnson would probably not be doing 50 Shades).

  • calliope1975

    I haven't erased Ben & Kate from my DVR yet. I'll have to for more room, but it'll make me sad.

  • Guest

    Yeah, I wish they'd release the unaired episodes like ABC did for D.T.T.B.I.A.23 (which is now available on U.S. Netflix by the way).

  • I go on a case-by-case basis. Some shows I gave as much chance as possible (Revolution) before bailing. Others, I caught the pilot and that's all she wrote (The Bridge). What I've learned to do is if it catches my attention, great. If it doesn't, I'll drop it and wait to hear if it got better before catching it during the lean months of summer via Netflix.

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