Monday, March 21, 2016

"It gets really good 7 episodes in"

TV shows evolve over time. Certainly if you were to watch the first couple episodes of Seinfeld, you'd find them to be strange, slightly stilted and slow affairs, lacking the complex structure and quotable dialogue that made the show one of the last true mega-hits of the TV boom. And yet, you can still see the germs of genius, the voice that was unlike anything else on TV at the time. It's not honed or polished yet, but it is distinct.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another show that took a season and a half to evolve into its ideal form. The moment "shit got real" is when Buffy lost her virginity to Angel, triggering his reversion to his evil personality and completely upending any sense of safety within the show. For that matter, the spinoff show starring Angel himself took at least 11 episodes to truly find its footing. It needed that time before its voice emerged and it found where it was going to fit into the Buffy-verse. Still, I'd argue that if you watch the first season of Buffy, it might be a little campier, cheaper and less ambitious than what followed, it still is distinct and unique in a way that draws you in. Joss Whedon's voice is there - he's just still finding his best keys.

One of my problems with the way network TV is run today is that programmers seem to have itchy trigger fingers. A new series could find itself canceled after two or three airings, which hardly seems like a fair amount of data on which to judge a series. Of course, it's important to realize that by the time most network shows have had their premiere, the series has probably shot six or seven episodes and may be working on the script for the 9th or 10th episode. At that point, the studio and the network have a pretty good sense of what they've got creatively, and if that's not working for them, a limp debut isn't going to convince them to throw good money after bad. (Though streaming figures and the Live+3 and Live+7 viewing numbers can end up extending a show's life just by virtue of the fact they take longer to compile.)

I bring all this up as a way of saying "yes, I get it. A show won't always be a home run right out of the gate."

That said, it's really exhausting hear a particular phrase with increasing frequency - "It gets really good six episodes in."

Look, back in the 90s the vast balance of our original programming was limited to 4 broadcast networks, sometimes 6 when The WB and UPN were in play. The idea that FX, TNT, TBS, and AMC would be major content providers really wasn't there. Today there are so many outlets for original narratives and there's already an abundance of good stuff on TV and all the various streaming channels. I feel like I watch a TON of excellent original programming and there's still probably an almost equal amount of excellent series that I don't watch.

So when I'm presented with a new show to fit into my already crowded life, I don't have time to give it a quarter of a season to figure itself out. This is especially true if the early episodes of the show seem devoid of anything compelling. I don't want to keep beating up on AGENTS OF SHIELD, but its first season was the epitome of a series that didn't know at all what its identity was supposed to be. The fallout of THE WINTER SOLDIER gave it a stronger mission statement and forced to show to redefine itself some 17 or 18 episodes in, but even then, I can't say I found it to be all that great. I gave it another half-season due to the addition of Reed Diamond as a bad guy, but to me it never felt like it got any better than the kinds of shows that would have been canceled by The WB and UPN back when Buffy was breaking new ground.

I'll give the show this - they had loyal fans. Their fans were so loyal that after the first half-dozen episodes I saw a LOT of angry responses to reviews pointing out the emperor seemed to be bereft of garb. When they weren't arguing the judgment was wrong, they seemed to be willing it to be a better show, convinced it was building to something. The makeover that followed THE WINTER SOLDIER allowed them to feel vindicated, leading to a rallying cry that translated to: "It got really good 17 episodes in."

When you say it like that, it almost sounds silly, right?

And if I'm being honest, this "give it 7 episodes" plea feels even more ridiculous in an era where streaming services are dropping an entire season's worth of content on us at once. I'm supposed to hand over seven hours - fully half of the season's running time - just to wait for something that feels like it's being delivered in its final form?

Apply the same patience the Marvel geeks gave SHIELD to the Warner Bros DC Comics film universe. Can you even imagine it being acceptable to tell someone, "Just keep watching until AQUAMAN. Then it gets really good." Can you imagine if the first Marvel film to be REALLY good was CAPTAIN AMERIC--

Okay, I kinda walked into that one.

(Before you send me angry comments, allow me to disclaim that the first hour of IRON MAN is one of the strongest things Marvel's ever done. Robert Downey Jr. is brilliant in the role, and most of my issues with the film come from the rather weak second hour, and Obadiah Stain is a pretty uncompelling villain.)

Daredevil just released its second season on Netflix. I rather enjoyed the first season, so I was interested in checking it out, even though I'm generally more of a DC guy. So far, I've watched the first three episodes and... it's not really my thing. Maybe I can attribute some of that to the fact that I find The Punisher profoundly uncompelling as a character, but I can weather the punishment of a disconnected story arc.

The larger problem - and this is one that I'm really noticing with streaming series - is many shows are now doing the TV equivalent of "writing for the trade." That's a comic book phrase, based on the premise that it's far more common for publishers to collect storyarcs that spanned several issues into trade paperbacks. What results is often a decompression of the story, padding out what might have once been a two or three issue arc into six or seven stories. A result is often that each issue feels less like it tells a complete story and more like something completely dependent on the other parts.

I felt it in Jessica Jones, where we got maybe two too many episodes early on where Jessica seemed to do little but follow Kilgrave. I've felt it in several seasons of House of Cards, particularly season two. It's a curious side effect of television drama becoming more strict in its serialization - we get fewer stories that standalone, even though in a long-running series, those are often the plot threads that allow creators to build out the world. In practice, it means that one, or perhaps two stories are told across the 13 episodes.

I understand how the standalone episode is anathema to the streaming model of cliffhanger-after-cliffhanger. A self-contained chapter completely halts that momentum, but there must be an alternative to a structure that demands several episodes of buildup while holding the compelling moments for much later in the run. There might be different causes for this malady - possibly plot constipation, or alternately, it's the natural result of a show finding itself.

So many of these streaming services are championed for how they give much more creative control to the writers. I bring this up because I don't think we can blame "executive interference" for things that displease us on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I do think that what might be more valuable is time. Give the creators more time to develop before they shoot. I can't remember the figure but there's some interview out there with Vince Gilligan where he reveals the final seasons of Breaking Bad spent much more time than is typical breaking story. It gave them the freedom to find ideas that they never would have hit on with tighter constraints. "More time" won't be a popular option, as it means the writers are entitled to additional weeks on the payroll, but maybe it can keep a third of the season or more from feeling like a throwaway.

The second change is one I'll address to the showrunners. Don't assume you have a patient audience. I know when you're launching a network show, you're under extreme pressure to spew plot twists. Every pilot season, that's more than clear than ever as pilot scripts spend only 50ish pages burning through twists that would have been stretched across as many as 6 episodes in the old days. The last couple of years it's been easy to perceive the flop sweat within the scripts, and that serves neither you, nor the audience very well.

And you, dear reader, should you pass this rant forward for others to read and they complain about how long it is, just assure them -

"It gets really good eight paragraphs in."


  1. This isn't necessarily your article's focus but when watching Daredevil I'm struck by how slow the pacing is. It's almost like the elimination of time constrictions on Netflix caused the editors to let moments drag on waaaay longer than they would for a Network show. And that's not necessarily a good thing - as often as moments have room to land scenes are dragged to a halt

  2. Thank you for addressing this issue and especially agree regarding easing up on time constraints. Have found that the outline for story ideas get substantially fleshed out, the added time one has to think about it or something springs up.

    Like you said though, the average TV/movie writer don't normally get that luxury/,freedom.

    Enjoyed this post. Thanks.