Why Television Takes Time to Become Great

News Nick Harley 10/3/2013 at 8:19AM

If a TV show has a bad first season, that doesn't mean that it doesn't deserve to continue, or that its best days aren't ahead of it!

My grandfather used to say that every day you’re bound to meet, excuse the language here (young kids, skip ahead if your parents are looking), an asshole and all you can do when you see him is smile and say, “there’s my asshole!” Rest in peace Pa, love you. I recently stumbled across one of these aforementioned expletives when visiting friends.

The fellow came bursting through the door like Kramer, but dripping with pretension and arrogance. Nose held high in the sky, he took in the room with a snide glare and almost sighed when he looked at those he shared the area with, like he was being tasked with hanging out with people below him. His speech was like Aaron Sorkin dialogue, snooty and self-satisfyingly coupled with caustic wit, and he had a way of sarcastically cutting down anything you might say. Everyone was on edge, hesitating before they spoke, being careful to not allow him an avenue where he could parallel park a car of condescension. The pop culture conversation we had, his mere presence, was exhausting.

Eventually, after what felt like agonizing hours but was actually a couple of minutes, we got on the topic of the television show Mad Men. It's a show I review here for Den of Geek and it is no secret that I’m quite fond of it. If she were a girl, I’d take her home to meet my Mom, I’d watch Lifetime movies with her if she wanted, and I’d even do the housework. I am that smitten.

On Mad Men, the prose is written like fine, classic literature, saturated in symbolism and theme. The performances are gripping and powerful. The costumes and design on the show perfectly capture the decade...I could go on for days (just read one of my reviews). But of course Mad Men wasn’t above the scrutiny of my new pal.  

Yes, it turns out my buddy had seen a couple episodes of Mad Men and wasn’t impressed. It is not a show for everyone, and I get that, but surely someone who fancies himself as smart as this kid does could find some of its merits, but apparently not, because he didn’t really have any kind words to say. However, he did mention that the episodes he saw were of the first season, and even I myself had a hard time continuing with the show at the beginning.

It takes awhile to get used to the pace of Mad Men, which moves much slower and can be quiet pretty often. It also takes a minute to appreciate how much the show uses themes, how each season and each individual episode are telling a deliberate story with a deliberate over-arching theme. There are no meth dealers bombing drug lords, no zombies, no vigilante serial killers, just people trying to survive in the decade that shaped today’s American culture. It’s not instantly satisfying, it’s like a movie that demands repeat viewings and becomes better every time you watch.

Carelessly, I said to this fellow, “Once you get past the first season, the show is incredible.” That was all the wiggle room he needed to pounce and he replied, “That is the telltale sign of a truly terrible show.”

That seems a little harsh and unfair. Throughout the history of television, plenty of brilliant shows struggled during their first seasons. Just like how it’s been difficult for me to really get to know all my neighbors from just a few encounters, it’s hard to really dig in and get in sync with a character. The writers are figuring these people out and so are the actors. Everything is new and it takes a bit to really click. Sometime it’s not even the show that is struggling, it’s the viewer.

It’s hard to really feel attached and connected to television characters in a couple of sittings. You need to watch them change, progress, or digress, you need to share their victories and witness their defeats. Following character arcs is, in my opinion, the best part of television and a part of what makes it my favorite form of storytelling. Think of any of your favorite shows and it’s likely that the first season isn’t your favorite.

For Breaking Bad, it’s season five. For Dexter, it’s four. Friday Night Lights, season three. Arrested Development, season two. And Mad Men, it’s season five, where Don Draper is reintroduced to married life and a co-worker has a season long arc that ends in their demise. Television shows, like all the best friendships and wines, get better with time and experience.

Mad Men didn't have the advantage of familiarity on its first go round. First of all, when Mad Men premiered, they did so with a cast of virtual unknowns. Sure, some of the faces sparked a, “oh it’s that guy from…” but none the actors were anywhere close to being cover of Rolling Stone famous. Also, this was an original drama produced by AMC, still known at the time for being the channel that played the same movies three times a week and not the cable safe haven for smart original programs like it has become. Right out of the gate, Mad Men had the chips stacked against its sustained success.

Some critics had problems with the story’s content, whether it is the action itself or the motivated action of the characters. New York Magazine 's John Leonard said, “They look a lot like the television journalists in George Clooney’s Edward R. Murrow movie—without, of course, the scruples,” and went on to call the show, “a fifties leftover, chock-full of unimportant secrets.” Others, like the Washington Post’s Tom Shale complained about the slower pace, describing the problem being creator Matthew Weiner’s "artsy, muted" direction and "desultory" pacing. He also complained about the storytelling being “dry, drab”. Sacah Zimmerman, from The New Republicthought it was all a little too dark, calling the show “depressing,” and The Hollywood Reporter's Randee Dawn just called the show, “a soft sell.” Oddly enough, or maybe not, those are the harshest reviews out there, and none of these critics went out of their way to say anything unkind about subsequent seasons of Mad Men.

Mad Men wasn’t an instant success with viewers either. There is no firm data about the average viewer rating for the first season, but the season one premiere only raked in .90 million viewers. Now, compare that to my personal favorite season, season five, which brought in 3.5 million viewers in its debut and went on to average 2.70 million viewers for the season. As the show had time to iron out the kinks, it found a larger audience. Now the show is headed into its sixth and final season, having survived season one’s spotty moments. Mad Men will bow being one of the most critically acclaimed series of the past twenty years.  

In the heat of my discussion with Mr. Personality, I mentioned another great show that I thought floundered in its first season, Parks and Recreation. Of course to be contrarian, he completely disagreed, but he didn’t persuade me. In the first season, Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope comes off a little too shrill and unlikable. She has the fiery energy and nagging determination of the Leslie I come to love, but her portrayal is too grating, like she’s trying to be Michael Scott. Actually, the whole show cops a little too much of The Office’s style in that first season, a thing that turned many viewers off to it right away.

Another problem is Leslie and Mark’s romance in the first season. They’re an odd pair with zero chemistry, and after watching Leslie have a near perfect romance with Adam Scott’s Ben in the latter seasons, it just becomes more painfully obvious. The ensemble cast is there, but they haven’t hit their grooves yet. Now, Parks and Recreation may boast the best ensemble cast on television, where they can pair any of their many different characters up for a task and the viewer is happy just to watch the two interact.

Shows like Parks and Recreation and other comedies like That '70s Show and Friends (also shows that got significantly better after the first season) become hangout shows. It doesn’t matter what’s happening as long as the characters are there and interacting, you’re happy just to hangout and become one of the gang, and that rarely happens in your first season.

A bad first season is not the sign of a terrible show, it’s just a natural thing that happens. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that sometimes the best art is the art you can watch grow into its own. Origin stories are necessary, but when character’s aren’t bogged down by exposition or set-ups, that’s when the truly great storytelling happens. You need a season to work out the growing pains sometimes, and sometimes you just need to spend a little more time with a program’s characters before they start to feel like friends.


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