Rich Heldenfels recently asked an intriguing question: “When is it too late to start watching a serialized show?”
I’ve always had a rather counter-intuitive answer to this question, which is “probably never.” I’ve had to modify this answer in recent years, because shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica really do make things difficult for the first-time viewer (and networks do seem to think that hyper-serialization discourages first-time viewers). But difficult doesn’t equal impossible. I still think that with most serialized shows, it’s possible to watch and enjoy them with only a rudimentary knowledge of what came before. If it wasn’t, then soap operas would never get new viewers, since every episode of a soap opera throws you into the middle of several stories that have been going on for weeks, maybe even years.
The thing about serialized shows is that even without a “previously on…” teaser or a long explanation of what went on before, the new viewer can usually get a sense of why the characters act the way they do or what they’re concerned about. That’s because the range of stories available to TV (or any medium, really) is fairly limited. So even if you arrive late, you can usually tell that someone is out for revenge, or that he loves someone who doesn’t love him, or that she needs to make a tough decision that could impact the lives of everyone on the planet. The things the first-time viewer will have trouble understanding are not the basic outlines of the story, but the details of the story — but the details don’t always matter all that much. If you come late to Damages, you’ll never know why everyone is after that videotape, but the videotape is a MacGuffin anyway. I think there are a lot of shows where the mythology is basically a series of MacGuffins, but where the emotional basis of the story is much simpler and easier to understand. And if a story is direct and rooted in basic emotions, then it’s not that hard to get into it; that’s something soap operas, the ancestors of today’s serialized prime-time TV, have always understood.