A Disappointing TV Season Is Hard To Define


We’ve all had the experience of feeling that a show we like has jumped the shark. But I think we’ve also had the opposite experience — thinking that a show is about as good as it always was, when the consensus is that it’s having a bad season. It’s hard for me to come up with a current example, because this year most of the trainwrecks deserve their reputation for trainwreckishness; I’m not about to defend Heroes season 2 or 3. But sometimes I’ll hear that a show has collapsed, or isn’t as good as it was last year, when I haven’t noticed much of a difference myself.

Now, this usually happens with shows that I only follow casually, as opposed to being a watch-every-episode kind of guy. And when you’re a casual viewer of a show, it’s harder to be disappointed with a particular season. I never really thought that the second season of Desperate Housewives was that big a drop-off from the first, but if I had been a bigger fan of that show, I might have been more aware of where the show was going wrong in its treatment of the characters and the premise.

Whereas when I’m really into a show, I am very aware, almost hyper-aware of any violations. You’ve seen it in my posts about How I Met Your Mother; and you would have seen more of it if I’d written the post I was planning to write about this week’s episode. (“The Naked Man” was one of the funniest episodes this season, but like a number of other fans, I’ve been disturbed by the hostile messages the show is sending out about Robin in particular and single women in general; last week, we’re told that women who haven’t landed a man are inherently pathetic. This week, we learned that it’s okay for a man to manipulate a woman into sleeping with him, but if she does so, she’s a slut.) I’ve been aware of weaker or less-comprehensible patches in the run of The Shield, whereas, with 24 (which I like, but doesn’t grab me), I’m not always sure which seasons are supposed to be worse than the others; except for season 1, which was better than anything that came after it, the “good” seasons have similar flaws and virtues to the “bad” ones.

When you watch a show on and off (or even if you watch every episode, but don’t have an emotional commitment to the show), as long as it offers the same characters and the same setting, it still seems like basically the same show. That explains the famous paradox of TV fandom: that the biggest fans of a show spend more time complaining about it than the people who aren’t huge fans. Only if you’re a really big fan of a show can you notice everything that’s wrong with it. If you’re not a huge fan, you don’t usually see a decline unless something big changes (a major cast member leaving, a cute kid being added).

Sometimes, though, the casual fan may be closer to the mark than the big fan. Sometimes I think that when I’m a big fan of a show, I get too close to it, to the extent that I’m too aware of every change in the formula. That kind of thing can make an episode a disappointing experience even if, by other standards, it’s good. I remember going through something like that with The Simpsons; I noticed that the show’s style was a little different in seasons 7 and 8 (when BIll Oakley and Josh Weinstein ran the show) than it had been in the previous two years (which is when I really got into that show), and that led me to feel disappointed in most episodes, because it just didn’t feel like the Simpsons I was used to. Now I think that those seasons are among the best. It’s hard to know, when you’re watching an episode as a fan who knows everything about the show, exactly if the disappointment is nit-picky or if it’s related to a flaw at the heart of the episode. That only becomes clear over time. (To keep on The Simpsons, it’s now clear to most people that the show really did take a downhill turn when Mike Scully took over the show. But at the time, it was like The Boy Who Cried Wolf; fans had been saying “worst episode ever” for so long that it wasn’t immediately clear that the Scully episodes were a problem for big, fundamental reasons instead of just a generic fan resistance to change.) I think someday we’re going to look back at recent TV seasons and see them a little differently; in time it’ll seem to me like some of the shows that looked jump-the-shark-ish were just about the same as before, while some other shows were going through major declines that weren’t apparent at the time.

It goes without saying, by the way, that whether a show is good or bad, improving or declining, is a matter of opinion, and if you like or dislike a particular season, the “consensus” hardly matters. (Except in my belief that season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was way better than season 5, which is proven solid fact.)

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A Disappointing TV Season Is Hard To Define

  1. Season 5 of The West Wing had a few rough patches – the drama was just as good as the series had always been, but they forgot to bring the funny. They succesfully overcame this problem by changing the format a little in Seasons 6 & 7, following the Vinick and Santos campaigns as well as the White House goings-on.

  2. But it also brings up the question of whether a show did actually have a drop in quality, but the decline continued for so long that fans were, in retrospect, much more willing to accept the seasons they decried at the beginning of the dip over the current, even-worse seasons. For The Simpsons, I’m too young to have seen first-run episodes from most of the 90’s – I started to catch up with the syndicated reruns by the time the show was actually in its 11th season. But amongst older friends, the arguments over which season(s) marked the downfall of the show is always fiercely debated. I argue, based on syndication and DVD’s, that season nine was a mixed bag, but mostly good (thanks to Oakley/Weinstein holdover episodes), and season ten was the first mostly-poor run. Others insist everything went downhill after the season four climax and/or shark-jumping of Marge vs. the Monorail, and some refuse to believe the show was better for leaving its more realistic-but-sometimes-surreal roots of seasons one and two. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that this season sucks (no matter what year the conversation takes place), the last five years have been pretty terrible, and it just makes you yearn for the golden days of [insert season here]. Even the people who disliked anything past season three agree that, relative to today, The Simpsons were in top form throughout the first decade.

    Similarly, I’ve seen older bloggers discuss a downturn in quality after Friends season [insert a number between 2 and 6 here] as if it were a fact, when again, I only started catching first-run episodes routinely in the last few seasons, and saw the rest through syndication. And unlike The Simpsons, I haven’t bought Friends on DVD season-by-season, and it’s harder to tell what season I’m watching than it is to generally ballpark it based on the quality of a Simpsons episode’s animation (sad as that ability is). What’s happened is that Friends seasons 1 through 7 or so are, aside from occasional references (is Mr. Heckles still around? How many times has Ross married? Chandler and Monica together? Did they have their “break” yet?), has turned into one big blur of a show, without clearly definable – and thus without easily comparable – seasons or arcs (bringing back Janet multiple times doesn’t help the confusion). Meanwhile, those two or three last seasons I did see in their original network broadcasts, with the potential Joey/Rachel romantic storyline and what felt like cookie-cutter stories and humor in the last season despite all the character and plot developments leading to the finale, paled in comparison to the seasons I was comfortable with. As a result, I generally find those new episodes mediocre, but I love that big, brightly-lit, optimistic blur that others apparently partially heralded as a shadow of the show’s former self.

    My point is that, just as you could argue that years from now we may look back and see we were angry over the slightest changes in what was actually a solid show, you could probably argue that any new episodes of a long-running show, whether they be simply of poor quality (The Simpsons being the example) or the formula tweaked just a little too far (which is how I think I feel about Friends seasons 1-7 versus 8-10), makes previous seasons look better by comparison, regardless of how good or bad those previous seasons were. Basically, if The Simpsons had ended after Oakley and Weinstein, would you look back now and still think their run wasn’t that good as seasons 5 and 6, or do you need those Mike Scully shows for comparison, to lump seasons 7 and 8 up with “the best of them,” and to realize it might not have been so bad after all? Ten years from now, will we look back at seasons 11 to 20 of The Simpsons and think they were actually pretty good just because seasons 21 to 30 were even worse?

  3. Hard to say, 5 wasn’t great either but:

    If you take Hush away from Season 4, all you’ve got is season 7.
    Okay the episode where Andrew (was it Andrew?) altered reality so that he was the hero was really good too. ( i loved that they changed the opening credits in that)

    I ‘ve got to stop commenting on Buffy comments. I also have to stop commenting on my comments


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