Thursday, September 19, 2013

The TV Threshold

We are familiar with the concept of "jumping the shark," that point at which a once good TV show loses its luster and begins its decent into mediocrity and just plain badness.  This is common and natural as the difficulty of finding fresh and compelling stories for the same characters becomes more taxing and the tastes of the culture migrate to other fancies.

But there are a good deal of television shows that are very good and yet never get the large audiences that many feel they deserve.  A common problem is that many of these shows desire to do long form story telling.  Television has a unique advantage over movies in that it can show slow character growth over the course of years.  But in order to do that, there has to be a lower baseline.  If you want to show a character grow to be a great person, many shows start by showing them as a not-so-great person.  This becomes problematic because of the glut of TV out there.  If I turn on the first episode of a show and I hate the main character, I am probably not going to stick around to watch that development.

How often have you heard from you friends about a show you did not enjoy "Oh, but it gets better!  Just wait!"

That point in a TV series after which you love it and recognize its greatness we will call The TV Threshold.

I think that this is important to recognize because it is becoming more and more of a staple for television shows.  The old theory was that the pilot had to be the threshold episode; you either bought into the series completely based on that first experience.  And to be sure there are still a number of shows that work off of that.

My wife and I loved the first episode of Glee and watched it several times.  But like many shows, there was a precipitous falloff in quality with the second episode.  But hung on for the first full season and then we gave up.

Sometimes it takes a few episodes to really understand what it is that you are watching.  The pilot to Lost was fantastic, but I've talked to a lot of people who say that the first Locke-centric episode, "Walkabout," is the moment that the penny dropped and they understood what the show really was.  I remember seeing the episode and being enthralled by Terry O'Quinn's performance.  But when the big reveal happens at the end I felt exhilaration and the thrill of the unexpected.  "If this show can do this to me on a regular basis, I will keep coming back," I thought.  Looking back at the episodes before, I now understood the groundwork that was laid to work on such a high-concept show.

Some shows have such a different style that it takes a while to understand.  I know many people who were turned off by the first season of The Office.  That show worked very hard to draw laughs from awkward and uncomfortable situations.  This was a clear departure from the joke/punchline/laugh-track style of comedies that have been and continue to be popular.  I would keep telling people to wait until the second season.  It was there that the producers understood how to get you to truly connect and sympathize with the characters.  Michael Scott in the first season had no real redeemable qualities.  But in season 2, they gave him better hair and they let you see his sympathetic side.  His bad qualities were still there and he still made things horribly awkward.  But because you had greater affection for him, you could stay for the awkwardness to the humor that was on the other side.

Other shows only find their stride when they shake things up out of their old formulas.  Parks and Recreation was like The Office-lite for the first 2 seasons.  It wasn't until a major cast shakeup for season 3 that the show really began to fire on all cylinders.  The problem there wasn't the content but the chemistry of actors.  Half way through the third season and I was completely enamored.  You don't have to always change the cast, just the dynamic.  Dawson's Creek was a decent to marginal show for the first three seasons.  But then half way through the 3rd season, the producers jettisoned some of their old tired stories and decided to focus on a good, old-fashioned romance between Pacey and Joey.  This opened a whole new world of possibilities and gave the show a second wind.

And then there are some shows where you don't even realize how good everything had already been until something shocks you out of complacency.  I remember watching the first season of Community and I found it witty and funny.  In the last episode of the first season, Jeff was given a choice between two women: Slater, who made him feel like he was already a good person, or Britta, who challenged him to be better.  At the end of the episode, Jeff made a choice that was like Alexander slicing through the Gordian Knot.  I was shocked by what he did until I rewatched the entire first season and saw the seeds of his choice planted throughout.

Forgive me for being vague about a lot of the details, but I would not want to rob you of the discovery you might have when you watch these shows.

And with the dearth of streaming and dvd access to these shows, binge watching is easier and easier.

So think about the shows that you love and proselytize others to experience.  It might be helpful to give them a Threshold point.  It might give them the stamina they need to push through a difficult show until they find the joy in it that you do.

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