It shouldn’t be too surprising that if you have two kinds of regular TV viewers out in the real world — those who give up on shows immediately if the hook isn’t set and those who watch every episode no matter what — the same might apply to those of us who are professional TV critics. That said, critics might have a different set of criteria for continuing or not. It’s the Peak TV Era after all and some of us believe there’s too much television.
Beyond quitting a series or not, there are other fundamental quandaries that both regular TV viewers and critics alike face all the time in the gray-area world of our changing television landscape. THR TV critics Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg knocked around some ideas, thoughts and theories on the subject:
Tim Goodman: Please tell me you stopped watching Heartbeat after your pretty savage review of it. Because if you didn’t, we might not be able to have this conversation.
Daniel Fienberg: I have a hard-and-fast policy that if I’m reviewing a show, I’ll watch as many episodes as the networks give me, and often that ends up being a masochistic gesture. So I watched three episodes of Heartbeat and that will be it for me. I didn’t need to watch Fuller House beyond the six episodes Netflix made available, and if Netflix hadn’t made the entire eight-episode run of Flaked available, I could have stopped, but instead I watched all of it. But I don’t have the same policy regarding continuing to watch after screeners if I think that what I’ve seen seems to be representative of the show’s potential — and if there are no points of genuine curiosity, I don’t need to watch more. When it comes to Heartbeat, I’ve seen what I need to see and I needn’t see any more.
On the other hand, The Catch, which also premieres this week, had a bad pilot, but it was a bad pilot that suggested potential for a lot of creative redevelopment and reconception. ABC only made one episode available, but I will watch another couple of episodes, just because I don’t feel like I’ve seen the show and I want to see what it settles into. Will you be checking back in on The Catch? Is my policy hopelessly naive and time-absorbing?
Goodman: Well, I won’t comment on “naive” but it’s definitely “time-absorbing” and, perhaps, masochistic. I have no such rule. I do loathe when networks only send one episode because pilots are problematic. That said, I can’t help broadcast television stop killing itself slowly. And the time I invested in The Catch will never come back. Besides 1) Why would anyone watch after that? 2) While I do love some network shows as pure escapism — NBC’s The Blacklist, CBS’ Elementary and Person of Interest — the Shondaland stuff is really not for me. And while I admire your, ahem, insane devotion to watching everything you’re sent, pre-review, I find there’s never an exact number of episodes that it takes for me to form the opinion I then take into the review. For example, I’ve seen shows so heinous I can’t make it through the pilot. That’s my “I don’t have to put my hand in the fire to know it’ll burn me” rule. Other times, I may have six episodes and know by the fourth that I love it and I’m ready to write. Because of deadlines or life, I may not have time to watch the other two when I need to file and move on.
But this brings up a couple of issues that we should probably address. First, I’m not sure most people, outside of critics, would watch four episodes of a show they don’t like just to get to the turning point that makes it good — or even great. It’s my firmly held belief that time is the most precious commodity for regular working folks, and in some way part of our job, in this Too Much Television world, is kind of a PSA on how not to waste time on crap. Of course, I’ve seen plenty of shows that really do get great after four episodes. You might have some in mind? I wonder, though, if those shows (those creators, those channels, etc.) have the luxury in this competitive environment to become great that late.
Fienberg: I don’t think people have time to watch crap, but I do think that even more than professional viewers do, audiences latch on to a thing or two that they love and that makes the show, more than if the show itself becomes empirically “good.” I’m a firm believer that nearly every show has a “best” version of itself and a “worst” version, and if I can see the best version peeking around the corner, I’ll wait for it. And wait for it. And wait for it. It took me two full seasons to give up on The Blacklist ever becoming more than a James Spader showcase and then to decide I’d seen him do his thing enough, so I could quit. I’m happy I’ve stuck with Limitless this season, because even if its best self is just a fun procedural with occasional inspiration, I like that. Whereas I keep watching Quantico and Blindspot for no discernible reason. You liked both of those two more than I did in the fall, but have I outlasted you?
Sometimes it just takes a few episodes to get into the rhythm of a show, whether it’s me not quite grooving on it or the creators not settling into the groove immediately. Baskets has gone from a show I found odd to a show whose oddness I embraced to a show that, as its ending its first season, I actually love. You reviewed and didn’t like Baskets when it premiered. Have you stuck with it? What does it take to get you to revisit a You’re The Worst or a Happy Valley?
Goodman: I kept with Quantico and Blindspot (more the latter) until it was clear they were just going to be mysteries with never-answered questions and, worse, stupid in the process. This from the guy who still watches The Blacklist. But Spader can make up for a lot — I guess that’s my latch-on point. And while we can’t paint all viewers with the same brush, the feedback I get from lots of people is 1) they are incredibly overwhelmed with choices and just want a handful of new things they can get into (they want the best of the best, so I’m always aware of that and never recommend series still trying to find themselves) and 2) having not much “free” time in their lives to invest in a show, a lot of people I know opt out of certain series, even excellent ones like The Americans, if they don’t immediately get into it.
Anyway, that last point of yours is interesting. I liked some of the quirk on Baskets (mainly Louie Anderson) but found it both unfunny and the main character, played by Zach Galifianakis, was relentlessly unlikable. A show like that — and I watched four episodes — makes it a very long shot that I give it another chance. And I’m not seeing the passionate, sustained support for it that was popping up in the ether (or my Twitter feed) like there was for You’re the Worst. And in fairness, I only saw two episodes of You’re the Worst and kind of liked the second — going back to revisit revealed I clearly made a mistake in my quick judgment. Same for Happy Valley — one and a half episodes, I think, as I was sampling to see if I should review the first season. I was really busy and passed on it because it didn’t strike me as fresh or different. Clearly that was more of a pop-in-and-see, flash decision situation, and I’m truly happy I went back.
Are there series you’d do that with? I was going to give Daredevil another chance because people said it got better in the first season — but I saw lots of bad reaction to the deeper episodes of season two, and I’m glad I skipped. In this hectic environment, I think that’s time saved. Looking back, another series I didn’t have to review and thus shunted to the side was Sense8, which I revisited and really unexpectedly enjoyed.
Fienberg: Baskets was always going to be an acquired taste, and I’m not surprised it hasn’t caught on like You’re the Worst, which is a much more accessible show. Personally, I think Baskets is much better than the first You’re the Worst season, but you needn’t revisit, because there’s nothing worse than people getting cult-y about a show and then you revisit it with higher expectations that can’t be attained.
Take something like The 100. The first five or six episodes are genuinely awful, but enough people insisted it got better that I revisited and you know what? It did get better. But even while acknowledging and knowing that it wasn’t the inept show that premiered, I wasn’t coming close to feeling the passion that fans were feeling, and I petered out midway through the second season because there was something it just wasn’t doing for me. I’m grumpy enough as is and I don’t need to watch a show that I’m a 5 or 6 on, hoping it’ll become a 10 for me. Of course, there are a lot of shows that I’m a 3 or 4 on that I still watch.
Someday I want to go back and watch Spartacus from the point that people insist it got good, even though those opening episodes were so bad. But there are a bunch of shows that I liked much more, but never finished or caught up on. You mentioned Sense8 and that’s one where I got to halfway through the first season, but never finished. It’s a much better show than Nashville or The Walking Dead, but I’m caught up on those.
Does comedy versus drama make a difference in terms of how quickly or slowly you give up?
Goodman: Let me save you some time with Spartacus — it never got better. It was and remains homoerotic blood porn, badly written and, for the most part, acted. The 100, however, is a great example of what it takes (and whether it’s worth it) to go back and “discover” shows you might have passed on. Based on the hoopla, I did go back and just like you suffered through the early half of season one (most people should just watch the pilot and skip deep into the first season somewhere), only to like where it was going and watch it become something much better in the second season and early third season. I say early third season because even though the show is probably at its best right now, I haven’t kept up because, all together now: There’s too much television.
So, was it worth it? As a critic, sure, just to be able to tell people a really bad show became pretty damned good. I’d say it’s more a 7 on your scale, but even then is that a show I’d tip people with time constraints toward rather than, say, The Americans or 20-plus other series? Probably not. But again, I doubt that superfans of The 100 will take my advice and watch Happy Valley. I ended up liking Sense8 because, visually, there’s really nothing like it. Plus, it’s bold and felt different — I’ll take that combo. In comparison, another Netflix show, Bloodline, was harder to endorse because, well, it takes forever to go beyond good and become interesting. Still like it, but not my first — or 15th— recommendation to people.
I can’t remember if you loathe the saying “comedy is subjective” or not, but I’m fine with using it and believe it. I just couldn’t get some people to like or laugh along to Arrested Development, which is Hall of Fame first ballot; I’m not sure I can even be around people who don’t like that (or 30 Rock). I’ll sample comedies frequently but will also bail earlier because I know almost immediately whether I’ll like it or not. I’m not a fan of shows I know you like, such as Mom or Big Bang Theory, but you’ve convinced me to start watching The Carmichael Show and I think we’re both constantly touting stuff like Fresh Off the Boat and Black-ish. But I think quantity fatigue also sets in for comedies, right? I really like Broad City but sometimes just can’t get motivated. I mean, the DVR stacks up with tons of stuff, and Veep and Silicon Valley, two shows I wouldn’t miss on the night they air, haven’t even started yet. Same with Archer. And I need to catch up on Sunny. Lots of excellent stuff out there, but so, so much of it.
Fienberg: I don’t think I ever told anybody I like Big Bang Theory. I don’t dislike it, either. In fact, I almost never give positive or negative reactions to it, though I’ve become increasingly sick of the show’s inability to do anything that isn’t stereotypical with Raj, even after 200 episodes. Big Bang Theory is one of seemingly dozens of half-hours that I record and watch each week because a 20-minute network comedy requires precious little effort to have on in the background, even if I’m waiting for a great cast to overcome mediocre writing, like with Life in Pieces, or waiting for a once-great show to reach its end, like with Modern Family, or all those years I watched How I Met Your Mother even when it was one of the worst shows on TV. So I’m actually never behind by more than an episode or two on any of my comedies, even if I have 10+ episodes of The Vampire Diaries piling up on my DVR.
And then there’s all the reality stuff I still watch, mostly Survivor, The Amazing Race, Top Chef and the dying gasps of American Idol, stuff I stick with even through bad seasons, though I think I’ve quit two or three reality shows in the past few years. And you don’t have any of those, do you?
And don’t knock homoerotic blood porn. We both spend a fair amount of time watching sports.
So is the lesson of this conversation: “Tim quits things, Dan doesn’t, but neither is a path to bliss, at least if you trust our Twitter feeds”?
Goodman: I think we maybe just proved there is no right way to go about it, but there’s a lot of opportunity to waste a big chunk of your life in this new TV landscape. All we can do is tell people to choose wisely by pointing out what’s worth their time. After that, anything that we don’t agree with can be used for mocking on Twitter, yes. Or maybe we just point to the hourglass of their lives and shake our heads knowingly. Meanwhile, I think we just got ourselves way behind on some shows.