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Just watch the early "bad" episodes (repost)

A TV show teaches you how to watch it. Sometimes, it has to teach you via episodes that don't quite seem to work.

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Emily VanDerWerff

May 31 2021

12 min read

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(It's a holiday in the U.S., so I am taking this week off from the newsletter’s Monday edition. The Wednesday and Friday editions — available to paying subscribers — will still run as usual. Please enjoy this repeat from February 2020. )

A few years ago, I got in an argument during a panel discussion with some other TV critics. The assertion I made was that all TV shows — even the ones I hate — get better the longer they run. This doesn’t mean they become good. It does mean that if you stack a second-season episode of, say, Criminal Minds (a show I don’t care for) against its pilot, 99 times out of 100, that second-season episode will be better produced, better acted, etc.

There is a law of diminishing returns at work here. A TV show eventually runs out of juice after a while, after all. But for a lot of TV history, it was a fairly solid rule of thumb that the best season of a show would either be its second or third, with a few shows having a longer cycle and some burning out after one fantastic year. (We have a tendency to over-remember the latter shows because for most of TV history, a show with a GREAT first season was a huge anomaly.)

But I thought my point made sense. The other critics on the panel did not, and if you find it on YouTube (I’m not telling you where), you can see how incredulously they took my point. So let me clarify: A TV show generally gets better at being itself in its later episodes. This goes for shows I love, shows I hate, and shows I’m indifferent to. It’s just the way it is. The longer you do something, the more skillful you will be at doing it.

But I’m rethinking this idea, too. I think that maybe sometimes, the audience gets better at watching a show, which always had a firm sense of itself.

Take, for instance, BoJack Horseman. My wife is rewatching that show in its entirety now that it’s done, and it’s long been a show I held up as one that got better at being itself in later episodes. By the second half of the first season, the show has escaped its shaky Hollywood satire roots to become something deeper and more cutting, and by the second season of its run, it has become one of the signature TV series of our time. Clearly, all involved figured out how to make that show better and pivoted accordingly.

You can even see the point when this happens. In the first season’s seventh episode, the show finally steps out of BoJack’s perspective more fully and lets us see him from the point-of-view of Princess Carolyn, his friend and lover. She realizes just how much of her life she has wasted on pursuing the guy, and the show lets that revelation be crushing and hard to bear. This is not yet the BoJack Horseman I know and love, but it’s much, much closer, and it was waiting right there within the version of the show I wasn’t as fond of.

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There are a couple of ways to read what happens in episode 107. One is that the writers realized that they needed to explore perspectives other than BoJack’s, because his was too suffocating, and they retooled the show on the fly. This happens all the time, and it’s the most likely explanation. Another is that doing episodes from the perspectives of characters other than the protagonist is something almost all shows do eventually, and in this particular case, it was such lightning in a bottle that the show pivoted to chase its example.

But I think there’s still another possibility here: what happens in episode seven was the plan all along.

It’s an old adage of TV criticism that a TV show teaches you how to watch it, and that this is particularly true for great TV shows, which have their own rhythms and patterns you have to grow accustomed to. For many years, I held up the idea that the fourth episode of any given prestige drama was often more important than the pilot, because that was the episode in which the show could start to show off some of its psychological and emotional depths. (It is no coincidence that, say, The Wire’s fourth episode features the justifiably acclaimed scene in which McNulty and Bunk examine a crime scene and exchange just one word of dialogue: “Fuck.”)

But I think an under-remarked part of the streaming phenomenon has been about how the best shows of this era often lull you in to thinking you’re watching one kind of show, then pull the rug out from under you, sometimes more convincingly than others. The classic example of this is Orange Is the New Black, which sets up a very commonplace fish-out-of-water story, then slowly but surely convinces you the fish is less interesting than the water. By its final season, the show takes place across an entire hemisphere of the planet, and this evolution feels completely normal.

BoJack may be an even more dramatic example of this kind of on-the-fly education. Those first six episodes set up a conventional antihero show, but played for laughs more than anything else. Indeed, part of the Hollywood satire that feels so weak in those episodes is satirizing the idea of the very genre the show pretends to be in. BoJack is so self-evidently loathsome that the show has fun with the idea that we’re supposed to find him compelling at all. The series is training you to watch one kind of show, one that if you are at all TV-savvy probably felt a little burnt out in 2014 when the show launched.

Then, in episode seven, BoJack Horseman immediately reveals that it’s doing something else entirely, and the pleasure of that revelation is almost entirely dependent on how the episodes preceding it were perfectly fine, all things considered, but telling a rather worn-out variation on a tired story. You need to be lulled into a false sense of security for episode seven to be as effective as it is, and it almost needs to come that late into the run to work. If it were, say, episode three, then you wouldn’t invest in BoJack at all. But if it came in episode 10 or something, you’d either be so turned off by BoJack that you’d stopped watching or so enmeshed in his point-of-view that you were unable to see what was wrong with him. Episode seven is the perfect point at which to puncture his myth of himself.

But it also requires critics to say things like “Well, the early episodes just aren’t as good,” or “It takes a while for the show to get good,” or whatever. And that prompts the natural response from readers: “Just tell me when it gets good.” But the problem with that request is that the show getting good doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The seventh episode of BoJack, the second season of Leftovers, the ninth episode of Halt and Catch Fire — they’re all built atop things that came before that didn’t quite work but also needed to be there for the things that did work to catch fire.

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One of the reasons I’ve come to think differently about this question is that in making the first season of my scripted podcast Arden, we very clearly had a point where the show “got good” — our fourth episode. And I frequently found myself telling people, “Well, you have to kind of get through the early episodes” or “We were figuring the show out in the first few episodes” or whatever, only to go back and listen to those first three episodes and realize that, hey, they were good! (I also have the burden of knowledge of seeing all of the plot hooks we set up in those three episodes that we mostly discarded or ended earlier than we planned.) They just weren’t what the show became, so they stick out more.

And yet for the show to become what it became, we had to spend a few episodes setting up a very straightforward true crime parody. The big conceit of the show — this is Serial, but there are two voices arguing over what happened, like in Moonlighting — requires essentially a single full episode (the pilot) to get the audience accustomed to. And after that point, we need to spend another few episodes delivering exposition (because the show requires a satisfying mystery to work, and mysteries require so much exposition) and developing the ensemble beyond the two leads. Episode four isn’t some magic point when the show “gets good.” It’s when we finally have all the pieces in place to make the show everything it can be.

Working on Arden made me a little gunshy about my own criticism, and this was part of the reason why. Were I listening to the show without being involved in it, I like to think I would recommend it, but I’m all but certain I would say something like “the first half of the season is a little shaky, and it takes a while for the plot to get started.” And yet if you just started listening to episode seven, when the plot really kicks in to high gear, you might find yourself confused, because it’s built atop all of the necessary exposition and character work we did in the first six episodes (including an episode where literally nothing happens but character development that I am incredibly proud of but that many reviews singled out as extraneous).

Yet even as I know the intentions of myself and my collaborators in making the season, I can’t entirely say why we made some of the choices we did. (Also, a critic should just generally not care about an artist’s intentions but, rather, their own reaction to the art as it stands! This is another thing I found complicated by my own attempt to bridge the gap between these two mentalities.) Certainly I could make an argument that our plan was always to spread beyond straight true-crime parody — a version of our 10th episode, set entirely on an airplane, was in the structure for the season from the very first. But we also saw some of the stuff that was happening between our actors and pivoted accordingly. (Our 11th episode, which completely destroys the frame of our show, was in no early documents and was a response to how good one actor was and how little material we’d given her to play to that point.) As with all artistic expression, the “answer” to the question of how we took the show from an intriguing but half-baked one to the show I love so dearly and am so proud of lies somewhere between a plan and being open to what happens in the moment.

And yet I see our download stats. Our pilot is by far the most listened to episode, and it’s the point at which a lot of listeners just never continue (though, intriguingly, this number became much less lopsided once the entire first season was there to binge). The pilot’s slow build is necessary for the show we were making, but it runs counter to the current trend in long-form storytelling, which is to frontload all the most interesting bits and hope you have enough ideas to fill a full season (much less a full series). I find this frustrating, but probably inevitable. We are increasingly conditioned to expect as much whiz-bang as possible from episode one, and my extremely limited forays into trying to sell a pilot in Hollywood right now have been filled with people wondering if enough happens in a first episode that contains at least four major character or plot revelations.

I am disheartened by this beyond my own work, too. I have always loved long-running television shows and why I despise the current movement to making sure a TV series is over-loaded from the word go. It’s also why I find questions of “when does it get good?” irritating. A good TV show is usually a magic trick, finding ways to push aside things that aren’t working gracefully, while nurturing things that are working so they can find full fruition. I understand that with so much content out there right now, it’s so much harder to be patient with a show that is teaching you how to watch it. But there’s something so satisfying to watching, say, the early years of Newhart and realizing they don’t quite work, then tuning in for the third season and suddenly getting one of your favorite sitcoms of all time.

All of which is to say: I will continue to tell people to watch BoJack Horseman, but I will continue to tell them the first six episodes are a bit of a slog. But they have to be a bit of a slog. The show works so much better because they are, and part of the magic of that show is watching how the soil that looked so barren at first contained the seeds of so many beautiful wildflowers.


Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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