Over at Gawker, Brian Moylan has had enough of waiting for TV shows to become good:
That’s the problem with these slow burn shows, especially ones with fancy pedigrees backed by highbrow channels like HBO or AMC. We can’t imagine how they could not be good, so we keep watching, episode after boring episode, all the while waiting for some amazing payoff. And sometimes, like a skilled horse coming from behind, it pays off. But remember: For every The Wire there is a Treme, and for every Mad Men there is a The Killing
Sometimes slow isn’t good. Sometimes slow is just drab.
This is an interesting point and one I’ve thought about from time to time. Are you getting tired of “prestige” shows that promise payoff down the line but ask you to invest a lot upfront?
However, for me, I’m not sure that Moylan is looking for the same things out of TV that I am. Is all TV inherently about some sort of “payoff?” To put it another way, I think its damaging to look at TV shows in terms of a cost-benefit analysis and assume that the time you’re putting in should be rewarded down the line.
That is not to say that shows shouldn’t continue to get better the deeper and more intricate they become. TV has the luxury of time, a luxury that no other visual medium really has, and that allows it to set up more intricate ideas and play with different modes of storytelling. Take Treme, which, according to Moylan, is an utter failure because it did not adequately reward his time. But Treme is not a show about plotting and payoff, it is more of a low-key, character based drama about people living their lives. The stakes are much lower and the payoffs will be much smaller than on The Wire.
But Treme never pretended like that wasn’t the case. From the first episode, it was clear that we weren’t dealing with the life-or-death, all-in-the-game world of The Wire. Treme has gotten deeper and more involving, its characters more complex, but it is the same show that it was in the first episode. On the other hand, The Killing isn’t a bad show because it never told us who killed Rosie Larsen; it is a bad show because it took a bunch of hollow, uninteresting characters and drowned them in a sea of red herrings without ever giving us a reason to care. It didn’t take 13 episodes to realize that show wasn’t going to be good.
Of course, shows change and improve over time and there are programs that you have to invest some time in at first to be truly rewarded by them. But they also have moments, even early on, that make you want to invest in them. The Wire was puzzling at first, but it still had the chess scene and the “fuck” scene in the first four hours. Mad Men was gripping from its first moments. Shows may be paced slowly, but that doesn’t mean they’re uninvolving. Moylan brings up Boardwalk Empire as an example of this problem but BE just finished its season with about as big of a payoff as it could have possibly done.
It is important that the shows that are usually held up as an example of this form, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, are shows that people usually caught up on after they aired. If an episode was disappointing or somewhat unsatisfying, you didn’t have a week to stew about it and increase the pressure on the next week. All of which is to say that if you are watching a show because you need it to vindicate itself for making you watch it, then it is probably time to cut the cord. Whether that takes two episodes or two hundred, it is up to you. But it isn’t a TV show’s job to turn itself into what you want it to be so that you don’t have to feel like you’ve wasted your time.