Tough on Television

The new fall season is officially underway this week. Of course, that’s the new network fall season. You can never tell when cable networks are going to start or stop something these days, it seems like. But for the “Big Four Plus CW”, it’s late September for the fall season. I just watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. this evening, and it’s off to a promising start. But I’m not going to be talking about it just yet. Instead, I thought I would talk about TV series in general, and my apparently increasing tendency to not tune in. (This is the first TV post I’ve made since February.) With new shows coming out, if I were a hardcore TV fan, I should be excited right now. But honestly, there are only a few new shows I’m interested in checking out (and one’s a midseason replacement), and there’s no guarantee I’ll stick with any of them.

It’s gotten me to thinking about why I’m so tough on television. After all, I give lots of movies a chance, even if I don’t expect them to be all that great.

Part of this, it has to be said, is simply habit. I’ve never been a big TV watcher, at least if one doesn’t count Saturday morning cartoons back before I grew out of them (and before the networks stopped showing them). I’d watch the occasional sitcom as a kid, but even the ones I liked I’d often go do something else instead (and I was a bit weird on that anyway; I watched Murphy Brown more reliably than The Cosby Show.) The only “serious” show I can remember watching regularly as a kid was Quantum Leap. Throughout high school and into adulthood, it remained much the same; there would be one or two shows a year I would choose to watch regularly, and little more.

But I used to be more lenient towards them. A show, once it had my attention, only had to be decent to hold it. It didn’t have to be great every week. It didn’t even have to be great at all. It just had to be moderately entertaining throughout. Nowadays, though… that doesn’t seem to cut it. I’m a lot more willing to say “Nah, it’s OK if I don’t watch it” than I used to be, and also more willing to say “That’s it, that was sufficiently bad that I’m done with the show.” In high school, once I found a show, I typically stuck with it until it was canceled. I watched every increasingly-shaky season of The Pretender (though I didn’t catch the TV movies). Even a few years ago I would generally stick with a show that I don’t think I would today. Going by my behavior today, I don’t think I would have watched the last three seasons of Chuck.

In a lot of ways, I think it has to do with my reading habits, and how they’ve changed over time. I didn’t watch a lot of TV in middle school and high school because I was always reading (now movies have supplanted both TV and books to a large extent). My favorite genres were sci-fi and fantasy (mystery was initially one, but I seldom read anything but Doyle and Christie.) And because the school libraries didn’t have large selections, I tended to read anything in the genre that was available; I didn’t have enough choices available to develop a discriminating taste early on. And so when I found a series I liked, I kept reading it. And reading it. Even past the point where I liked it. Sure, the fourth book was bad, but the first three were pretty good; the fifth is bound to be OK. Sure, it’s been six bad books in a row, but the first book was absolutely brilliant, there still has to be something of value in this author’s writing, doesn’t there? Eventually I recognized this habit of mine — with the high school having several Piers Anthony series it was hard not to confront it eventually — and came to the conclusion that if I wanted to actually enjoy reading, I had to make a break. The satisfaction of knowing how things end isn’t enough to make up for missing the satisfaction of a good story — especially if that ending may never come.

And many years later, I find myself feeling the same way about television shows. I have no patience for most sitcoms nowadays; they all feel like the same tired jokes and the same cliche situations. And dramas tend to go for the long-form stories more and more. If you want to know what’s really going on, you have to stick it out for the whole series — or at least the whole season. It’s a lot like those books. You want the satisfaction of knowing the ending. But more and more I find myself putting the weight of emphasis on the satisfaction of having a good viewing experience. It’s why I tuned out of Revolution after one episode; I was curious about what had caused the shutdown, but even in the unlikely event that they explained everything eventually and it was a good explanation, it wasn’t worth sitting through a second poorly acted, poorly scripted episode. I’ll forgive an occasional weak episode, but overall, the show has to be good all the way through, or I don’t feel inclined to stick with it.

And it does have to be good, not just “OK”. And yes, it has to be good the first season. I know that many shows got better their second season; Star Trek: The Next Generation is an oft-cited example. But that hope isn’t going to be enough to keep me going through the first season if it’s not already good enough that I don’t have to make qualifications and excuses for it. I’m not going to read a mediocre book for a great sequel, and I’m not going to watch a mediocre first season for a great second season. There’s simply too much of a time commitment. With commercial breaks, a typical episode is an hour long. A typical season is thirteen episodes. Thirteen hours total. Nothing complicated there, nothing non-obvious. But consider the ramifications of that.

That’s a day.

Yes, I know a day is 24 hours. But when you factor out time to sleep, eat, and take care of other basic necessities, 13 hours is a pretty good approximation of the amount of time you have available to do stuff during a day. So the question, when looking at a TV series getting off the ground is this: Would you spend an entire day doing something you were only vaguely enjoying, in the hope — the hope, not the sure knowledge — that you could then spend the next day doing it again and that it would be more fun the second time around?

Thinking of it in those terms, it becomes pretty difficult for me to justify watching the entire season of a show if I haven’t thought the large majority of episodes so far were really good, and not just alright. Not when I can use the equivalent time on things I know I’ll enjoy, or at least won’t enjoy less. And so it has gradually become tougher for TV shows to hold my attention. A bad pilot and they’re out. A good pilot followed by a few bad episodes and they’re out. One catastrophically stupid episode and they might be out. Or if I just realize that I’ve missed several episodes and don’t care, as happened with Arrow last year.

Because if I’m going to be watching TV, I want to be enjoying it. Not just passively sitting there. Even with as much free time as I could ask for, I wouldn’t have time for that.

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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9 Responses to Tough on Television

  1. ckckred says:

    I feel the best TV shows are on cable these days. I regularly watch Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Louie, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Justified. The only show I continuously watch on network television is Parks and Recreation.

    • I’ll agree that cable tends to have better shows than the main networks — partly because they’re more willing to take a chance — but while it was network TV that spurred this post, it applies to cable as well. There’s a lot that I’m just passing up because it’s not good enough to hold my attention.

  2. Treva says:

    My life changed dramatically for the better when I finally gave myself permission to not finish any book I’m not enjoying. Life’s too short for bad media.

  3. Spikor says:

    I still like TV. I don’t like much TV… but I still enjoy it. Even the bad stuff.

    I think every show I’ve ever given up on before the end of the first season has gone on to have a huge fandom… Fringe, Mad Men, Big Bang Theory, NCIS, Arrow, Stargate, Babylon 5, Smallville, Friends, ER… and those are just the ones off the top of my head that I started when they were new and just couldn’t get into them.

    Some of those I’m willing to admit I was wrong about… some… not-so-much.

    • Some of them you’re not wrong on, definitely. Of course, I’m right with you on Arrow, and most of the others I didn’t even start on. Fringe I stuck with, but I can’t say you were wrong for dropping out on it — it had a lot of rockiness the last few seasons.

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