TV Talk #3: Give 'Em Enough Rope

Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Previously on TV Talk...

So, here's a question: how long do you give a TV show before giving up on it?

This is a discussion that often comes up when it comes to TV, because while the barriers to entry for a show can be many, sometimes the biggest one is the show itself. After all, not every show can come screaming out the gates firing on all cylinders -- a lot of shows need to take time to set up their universe and establish their characters. But how much time? How long should one give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt? Just how much rope should you give them? Well, the milquetoast truth is that art by its very nature defies rigid categorization, and there has never been a TV show in the history of man that's maintained a completely consistent quality throughout, so it's best to judge it on a case-by-case basis. Trying to make up some sort of hard-and-fast rule for determining a show's worth is an exercise in futility.

...but screw it, I'm going for it anyway!

Let's start with the lower limit -- at what point can you make the definitive judgment call that a show just isn't for you? I'm gonna go ahead and say five episodes, and I have a very specific rationale behind that decision, and that rationale is Spartacus.

Starz' Spartacus: Blood and Sand was always on the periphery of my nerd knowledge. I had friends who would watch it and swear by it, I knew that DC has taken to casting everyone who was on that show, usually as a bad guy (Spartacus is the Weather Wizard! Crixus is Deathstroke! Naevia is Amanda Waller! Varro is Captain Boomerang! The list goes on.) and the buzz I heard about it -- especially its later seasons -- was super positive, so I decided to give it a try.

Literally the only SFW screengrab I could find from this show.
But, okay, here's the thing about Spartacus: Blood and Sand. The pilot bad. Like, really bad. Like, "this makes me embarrassed to have eyes" bad. And look, I try not to traffic in snarky, dismissive takedowns, but there is no way I can overemphasize how bad a taste that first episode left in my mouth. The writing is cumbersome and obvious, the endless T&A is tacky and cringe-inducing, the visual effects look like they were rendered on a PS2, the characters are barely-developed's honestly like a bunch of horny teenagers threw the collected works of William Shakespeare and 20 years' worth of Hustlers into a wood chipper, pasted the results together, and filmed it. It's genuinely just...not very good television, and I would have given up on it entirely...except I had that damned five episode rule (and some very persistent friends).

So I slogged through the next four episodes, and I'm glad I did, because that fifth episode was when it clicked for me. The actors finally got a handle on the stilted, faux-Latin dialogue and their motivations were cleared up. The cheesy, cheap-looking action scenes took on a cartoony, almost theatrical quality that became almost endearing. Heck, even the skeevy T&A started to work in service of the show and its characters (funny how objectification works when the point is to highlight how the Romans saw their slaves as literal objects). It just took a little while to find its footing and finish setting its stage. Granted, it could have done that all in the first episode instead of making "300, but cheaper and less mature, somehow!" but that's neither here nor there.

I'd argue that the 5-episode rule only applies to dramas, though -- that number is marginally higher for comedies. I'd say six is the right number. Think about it -- Community started off pretty strong but didn't hit its stride until its sixth episode, "Football, Feminism, and You" (which gave us this immortal conversation). Futurama's first stone-cold classic was "A Fishful of Dollars", which was it's sixth episode. Scrubs' first really great episode was Episode 6: "My Bad", which introduced Dr. Cox's tumultuous relationship with his ex-wife Jordan. One of my favorite new comedies, Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt hit its peak in episode 6 as well, giving us "Pinot Noir", arguably the season's funniest moment.

So, there's the minimum. But what's the maximum? Well, that question's considerably muddier -- the show that immediately springs to mind is Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I've been avoiding this particular show because almost every account I've come across says that it doesn't get good until episode freaking eighteen. Yeah, lemme reiterate that: this show has to get through eighteen episodes of chaff before it actually starts working. That might not be too much for some people -- and the show's continued success indicates that it hasn't been -- but I think it's too much for me. If I do ever get into AoS (after I get into Game of Thrones and Mad Men and Vikings and the many overlapping clouds of thousands upon thousands of other shows I hear I "have to" watch. You know, after I get caught up The Americans, because holy crap that show turned out awesome), I'll probably just wiki the first eighteen episodes and jump right to the good stuff.

With so much good television on the air right now, it can become easy to make snap judgments about series just to make it easier to filter the constant, nonstop barrage of new shows, hype, and word of mouth (to say nothing of the internet's increasingly hyperbole-driven, black-and-white, "This is the best show ever/this show literally gave me cancer" ideology, which...hasn't helped.) But if a show's worth looking into, it's at least worth giving a few episodes. Even if the first few episodes seem like utter garbage, who knows? There might yet be diamonds waiting in that rough.

You won't know unless you give it five episodes. Or six. Or eighteen. You know, somewhere in there.


Next Time on TV Talk...Explosions! Me continuing to tell you how awesome The Americans is! References to Descartes! A nuanced discussion of Tort Reform! At least one of those things.


  1. Sometimes a show comes out the gate firing on all cylinders then goes downhill from there. Ahem cough cough Heroes cough cough


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