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Should We Watch TV Shows From the Beginning?


 

That’s an question that I’ve heard more often lately (though it’s been around for a while; I wrote another post addressing the issue a couple of years ago). Increasingly the answer is “yes.” The traditional way to encounter a TV show is just to drop in and start watching, and maybe catch up with the earlier episodes at a later date. But now that TV series are taken more seriously as complete and coherent works, to say nothing of the fact that we can watch from the beginning no matter how late we discover the show, there’s an increased preference for getting the full experience of the story from beginning to end. Even where the show deals mostly or partly in self-contained stories, like Justified or almost any half-hour comedy, many new viewers prefer to start from episode one.

It’s well-known, of course, that almost every TV series wants people to jump in in the middle, or at least that the creators wouldn’t object if we did. Different shows may provide different amounts of information to help new viewers get caught up, but with rare exceptions of shows that are very insular (usually limited-run shows) shows will provide signposts along the way to help people understand what’s going on, and ground the storylines in traditional emotional conflicts — love, hate, revenge, corporate machinations — that are familiar enough for new viewers to understand. Soap operas have been doing this for decades, and they’re constantly getting new followers who, after a few episodes, are completely aware of who these people are and what they want. Most shows’ mythologies and ongoing relationships are simple enough that a new viewer can understand them, maybe not the first time, but certainly without going back to the beginning.

But just because we can know what’s going on in a show doesn’t mean we really understand it, and the argument is that (particularly for a sophisticated show, or one that aspires to sophistication) a good TV show is a work of art, and that we only get its full impact when we follow it from beginning to end. We can drop into a novel, including a serialized novel, in the middle, but most readers would agree that we haven’t really read it unless we read the whole thing from cover to cover.

Because TV in the post-Sopranos era has started to be directly compared to novels or other higher-class forms of art, this argument is part of the general argument that television is a more sophisticated medium than it used to be, and deserves to be treated less casually. Prime-time dramas from the pre-Hill Street Blues era (and many that have come since) are specifically made so that nobody misses much no matter when they drop in. (They even do it in the middle of the episode; you’ve probably noticed that procedurals and other mysteries tend to recap the entire plot at the halfway mark.) Soap operas are almost completely plot-driven, and all we need to catch up on are the details of the plot. But an ambitious modern drama deals in theme as well as plot, and many characters are defined by how much — and why — they change from what they were in the first season. The argument is that these shows demand more of us, and one of the things they demand is that we start from the beginning. We can still enjoy the show if we start later, but an important part of the experience is denied to us if we do.

I think that argument has a lot of merit. I don’t know if I agree with it. Maybe my reaction is, well, reactionary: I started watching TV in a certain way and am naturally disinclined to believe that it’s an inferior way. But while I don’t think that way is better, I’m not convinced it’s worse, either. The way of watching I’m talking about is as follows: you hear about a TV show and check it out. (Or you just accidentally come across it and keep watching.) You are aware that you’re not watching from the beginning and that the characters are talking about things that are unfamiliar to you, but you keep going, and eventually you know what the show is about and who these people are and what they want. And then, suddenly, you find you’re hooked. You not only want to watch every episode from now on, you want to catch up with the ones you missed. I find I get most involved with shows when they catch me almost by surprise; following along with a show to see if it becomes great can also lead to passionate involvement, but for me it happens more often when casual or drop-in viewing suddenly turns into something more important and compelling.

What I love about this model is that the relationship between the viewer and the show is almost like a human relationship: it starts casually, even with a chance encounter, and then blossoms into love. (Having made that comparison, I hear Homer Simpson’s voice: “Are you huggin’ the TV?”) If TV is like a novel, one thing the media have in common is that the decision to jump in can be very casual, only to turn into a huge investment of time if you find it truly compelling.

The “watch from the beginning” model implies that we have to make a huge investment of time in a show in order to really appreciate it. This is fine if you enjoy it, but it can make TV viewing seem like work, or research, which is far from the experience that the creators of the show intended. (To the extent that their intention matters, I mean.) This is a particular problem when the earlier episodes are either weak or dated. I love the first season of Buffy and to a lesser extent even the first season of Angel; others who might love the rest of the series might not be at all fond of those early episodes, and I think overall they’ll enjoy the series much more if they start with the seasons that will appeal to them. They’ll miss some character background but they’ll be able to pick up much of it as they watch the later episodes.

The other thing that unnerves me about the idea of watching from the beginning is that it removes the interactive, non-linear aspect of TV viewing. One of the most special things about a television series is that it really isn’t a complete, coherent work. (The exceptions, again, are limited-run series that have the whole thing planned out. And those are the ones that probably don’t reward non-sequential viewing; we can watch a Dennis Potter show out of sequence, but it won’t be very rewarding or interesting compared to watching it straight through.) They are collections of episodes telling a continuing story, but the story changes as the years pass, as the creative personnel change, as the producers do new things to avoid getting canceled.

If TV is like a novel, it’s closer to an early Dickens novel like Martin Chuzzlewit, where the author started out telling a story with a coherent theme and wound up changing almost everything as the story went on (a re-tool, as it were), only to return to the original theme somewhere near the end to create the illusion that the whole thing hung together. Critics have tried to read the whole book as if everything in it was planned or works toward the same goal, but that’s a meaning we choose to impose on the book; it’s not supported either by the book or the way it was written. And the same goes for most television series, which may be about completely different things in season five than they were in season one; we can read the whole series as if it was planned out and carefully develops a theme from beginning to end, but that’s a pretty tenuous reading a lot of the time.

And far from being a terrible thing, the looseness and incoherence of TV can be a wonderful thing. The meaning of the series is something we create as much as the creators do, because the lack of a coherent structure to the whole thing allows us to read more into it. (This goes back even before serialized television. Star Trek had no character development or story progression as it went along — and yet it feels like it did, because the fans read that into the show, and the fan reading of the show eventually became something close to canon, as later Star Trek incarnations began to play directly to the meanings that the fans liked to see.) And just as TV allows us more leeway in the meanings we find, TV allows more freedom in how we experience it. We can, if we choose, start in the middle and go forward and backward simultaneously. We can skip around from a later story to an earlier story almost randomly, or we can go back and look at the earlier episodes to see specifically how our favourite characters came to be the way they are. And each viewer may have a different idea of the show, and what it is, and who the best characters are, depending on when he or she became hooked on the show. I think of it as non-linear viewing: if it’s all right for storytellers to give us stories out of sequence (and it is) then it’s all right, in a medium as loose and interactive as TV, for viewers to create their own structure.

One of those choices is to begin at the beginning and follow along in the order set by the creators — and that’s fine, maybe even the best way. But I think as much as anything else it’s a product of the TV on DVD era, which made viewers very conscious of each season as a complete unit and of exactly where a show officially begins. Now that the DVD market is drying up and online streaming is becoming bigger, I wonder if we might see less linear viewing methods become more accepted. You certainly can stream a show from the beginning, and the sites do tell you which season each episode is from. But they allow and even encourage random episode viewing in a way that DVD season sets did not. And while picking out an episode at random may not tell you much about, say, Breaking Bad, I do think there’s nothing wrong with starting in the middle of Breaking Bad and then going back to see how the characters got to be the way they were when we met them. That’s what gives TV a more lifelike rhythm than other media: like real people, we encounter these fictional people in different ways and different times.


 

Should We Watch TV Shows From the Beginning?

  1. Good thoughts & I mostly agree. One quibble: I don't think that soaps are really that plot-driven – or if they are, it's held at a remove. A famous academic analysis of soap operas (by Robert Allen) argues that soaps are really about the way that people & relationships react to events rather than the events themselves. So the fact that one event gets retold dozens of times on a soap is not (just) to ensure viewers are in-the-loop, but because we want to see every different person's reaction to the news.

    I watched s3-4 of Angel before going back to the beginning and was quite fine with it, and I may not have pushed through the weak spots of s1 without know where it was leading. As for Breaking Bad, I agree that it would be intriguing to start with s2 and then return to s1 with the foreshadowed arcs in mind.

  2. "You are aware that you're not watching from the beginning and that the characters are talking about things that are unfamiliar to you, but you keep going, and eventually you know what the show is about and who these people are and what they want. And then, suddenly, you find you're hooked. You not only want to watch every episode from now on, you want to catch up with the ones you missed."

    I actually got into Lost not from watching the show, but from following Sepinwall's S4 and S5 reviews, becoming more and more intrigued, and suddenly finding myself hooked on the characters and plots and wanting to watch every episode from the beginning. Yes—even though I was already spoiled for a lot of what happened. I don't regret it, since I probably never would've watched the show otherwise.

    My point is, what people think it takes to enjoy a show and what it actually takes are often two different things.

  3. I don't *disagree*, but I wonder about the extent to which the DVD boxed set, downloading, and streaming have for some viewers (like me, if I'm being honest) in fact intensified the desire to start from the beginning. There's certainly nothing wrong with jumping into the middle of a series and catching up as you go, but the possibility of holding off on current episodes in order to catch up what you've missed first is much stronger now than it used to be. And the increasing importance of serial form in television narrative (which Jason's written a lot about) privileges that style of watching.

    But maybe it's just me. I watched s2 of 24 as it aired, while I was still trying to catch up on s1 on DVD — and, what was it, two episodes in, the conclusion of s1 got laid out in gross detail. Perhaps I wouldn't have cared so much if I hadn't been simultaneously watching s1 and s2, but the effect utterly deflated all of the tension in what remained of s1 for me. So perhaps I'm just overly spoiler-averse.

  4. It seems to me like the next logical step in this argument is having an artist convey a particular thought or emotion via ordering the episodes of a show (rather than making the episodes themselves). So maybe they would want to convey some idea using episodes of Buffy, and they might feel that idea is best conveyed by watching S3E4, then S1E3, then S5E9, etc.

  5. The desire to start from the very beginning (that's a very nice place to start) is the reason I haven't yet seen any of The Wire.

    • I was in same situation as you until I found The Wire for rent on dvd at small shop in town. Watched Season 1 over Christmas and just finished Season 2 last weekend. Really enjoying it and am glad I waited to watch it in order.

  6. If a long-running show demands to be watched only from the beginning, then that's a weakness of the show. This is not to say that you might not be able to get more enjoyment out of a show if you watch from the beginning, but rather that a story cannot be maintained with both momentum and quality for very long. This is why the best TV shows may have bigger stories, but they tend to have season-long stories which come to a conclusion, and then something new comes along. This is the Sopranos/Buffy model – standalones with larger plot and character implications, leading up to season finale blowouts.

    The Wire is held up as a model of unforgiving serialization, but there's no reason that you can't start at the beginning of any specific season and figure out what's going on in general. Babylon 5, the drum I keep beating, is known for its five-year-long storyline, but that's something of a misnomer – it has multiple interweaving storylines which generally don't last for much more than a season. The next story comes out of the consequences to the resolution of the last. Which makes sense, and also means that no, you don't have to watch from the beginning. Angel's model is mini-chapters of 3-6 episodes, and jumping in at most any point may be a little confusing at first, but should be easy to follow once the next chapter begins.

    On the other hand, the big mystery shows – which start with a single central premise and stick with that premise – tend to be both harder to jump into and less satisfactory when they resolve. The X-Files is the perfect example of this – four years of Mulder almost finding the truth only to have it snatched away at the last moment turned into a collapse of the mythology around the fifth season. Lost (which I haven't watched) has an ending which is controversial at best, based on what I've read.

    • You can definitely pick-up The Wire at the beginning of any season & figure it out. But one of its great pleasures is watching the canvas broaden, and that effect needs to be experienced in sequence. Plus some of the previous season's revelations might be spoiled, which would be another pleasure removed from the experience.

      As for Lost, you could certainly watch out of sequence, but the show's mode of storytelling changes enough each season that it might be quite frustrating for someone to get into the sci-fi nuttiness of s4-5 and then go back to the wilderness adventure model of s1.

      The big question is why would you purposely watch something out of order if you could easily start from the start? I can think of few reasons aside from convenience (like if you're watching with a partner or friend).

      • To take B5 as a case study, the main reason that starting from the beginning is a problem is that the beginning of B5 is really bad. I suspect that this is the biggest reason why, given its unique status as a show with a five-year plan that succeeded in portraying that whole storyline, it's generally ignored today. Critics, or perhaps, television-based opinion leaders hear "it's a coherent five-year story!" so they think that it needs to be watched from the beginning. But it's bad, or at best, wildly inconsistent, so they stop, and ignore the rest.

        A similar thing probably would have happened with Angel, except for its associations with Buffy. The quality/serialization trajectory of both shows is pretty similar (poor, episodic S1 that can largely be skipped, dramatic improvement and much more serialization in S2, an excellent balance in S3, too much crazy in S4). Now, obviously this depends from show to show, but there are a lot of genre and serialized shows out there that take a season and a half to rev up. And it's possibly best to start when they get good.

        • I think it's different with Buffy; there's nothing wrong with the first season overall except the low budget and some weak episodes (but every season had them). However I admit that watching the first season as a unit on a DVD set it may not be as effective as it was at the time, watching it week by week and seeing how interesting and daring the mix of styles was becoming. So I don't know that I'd tell someone to start Buffy with the first season, particularly if they're more used to the style of '00s TV.

          • I also think that sometimes it's better to watch the show at its high point and then go back. You'll be able to forgive the weaknesses and see those strengths developing, and if it's serialized, foreshadowing and the like.

          • Probably. Buffy season 1 will never have the same impact that it did when nobody was expecting anything good of it. Its writing is calculated on the basis that the audience's expectations are low and that it can confound and surprise us, which it did. You could say that even if we watch Buffy from the beginning we're not seeing it the way the creator intended if we think it's going to be good.

          • I agree that a new Buffy watcher shouldn't start w s1 now unless they're already sold on Whedon. Same reason I tell people to start Parks & Rec in s2 – first (shortened) seasons laid seeds but don't stand out as fully formed.

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