Episodes: Why do you trust a TV show?


Over the weekend, my wife and I dove deep into upcoming episodes for one of our favorite TV shows. In the next handful of hours, the series is going to try some things that are seriously ambitious and impressive, even for a show I already found generally ambitious and impressive.

And those things have me a little bit terrified. (My wife is just falling ever more deeply in love with the show.)

It's not that I think the show is handling them poorly -- far from it. It's that I'm terrified of the Worst Case Scenario, where the series, all evidence to the contrary, botches the landing and plummets off a cliff. Despite the fact that I enjoy this show, that I have sung its praises on many occasions, I'm not yet ready, it would seem, to truly trust it to not fuck things up. (Arguably, though, if it does so with this storyline, it will have earned a ton of leeway from me in the future.)

We're all playing these trust games with our favorite shows -- especially dramas. The more in the tank we are for the show, the more likely we are to give it as much room as it needs to try stuff and screw up and just generally make a fool of itself. I think, for instance, of a show like Mad Men, which tried a lot of viewers' patience in its final season (both halves), but said viewers had invested so much in the show at that point that they wanted to see how it turned out. That was the indication of someone who was committed.

And, admittedly, this can backfire. I'm a pretty big advocate of both letting showrunners tell the stories they want to tell and the final season of Lost, but I can definitely sympathize with those who were all in on the show, then felt like they'd been sold a bill of goods thanks to the final season. (As my good friend Noel Murray has put it many, many times and Lost Spoilers Follow, "I loved these characters, but I don't know that I needed to know what happened to them after they died.")

Yet it's never clear to me just why I decide to trust, wholeheartedly, the shows I trust wholeheartedly. Sometimes, it's just because they're so different from anything else on that I know I'll sit through whatever weird missteps they make along the way. Sometimes, it's because they get one key, core thing perfectly right, and they cling to that even when everything else is falling apart. And sometimes, they just win me over after long, long periods of being consistently good.

The answers for others vary, too. Some people invest their trust in a show because of a romantic pairing, some because it reflects their politics. Some just hope it will become the best version of itself. There's no rhyme or reason to any of this.

I would say that, in general, I am probably too generous with my trust, but I also suspect that's a big part of being a TV critic. If you're going to keep watching a show you suspect might be going off the rails, better to just hope it doesn't until it confirms your worst fears.

An obvious example of this, for me, is Homeland, where I fell really hard for season one around "The Weekend," then forgave it lots and lots of missteps throughout season two before finally, grudgingly admitting that it was in a rut in season three. And even then, I generally like seasons four and five. (Season six is trying my patience -- maybe this show just shouldn't do seasons in multiples of three.) And even now, when people bad mouth Homeland, I will inevitably bring up an alternate version of season two that was almost made but abandoned instead, thinking that, hey, if that had been made, the story of that show would be a lot different. And I'm pretty sure I'm right about that -- but we also don't live in the universe where that version of the show was made.

Anyway, I don't know why I trust some shows and not others. I've definitely gotten more leery throughout the course of my career, not less. What is it for you? What brings you back, again and again, even when you suspect a show you're into might have completely lost it?

(For those of you wondering, if you hit "reply" to this email, I will see it!)

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.