On the impossibility of enjoying TV episodes

Jaime Weinman on the struggle of classic episodes to live up to their reputation

So, anything happen since last week, except Don Draper getting a “the Reason you Suck” Speech speechified at him and the Fox Network giving up on Cops?

Well, the TV networks will soon be announcing their new series pickups, and there’ll be a lot to say then – like, how many of the new shows are about serial killers? (The ideal pilot, from a broadcast network point of view, would be a single-camera family comedy about a serial killer who only kills zombies – Dexter meets Modern Family meets The Walking Dead meets some other show that every network executive watches.) In the meantime, I wanted to do a little television-theory post, based on an article I read last week.

Salon’s Willa Paskin looked at a lot of episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and concluded that the show was more historically important than funny. While I don’t agree with the conclusion (or, for that matter, with the idea that Mary Richards is a lovable, perfect character; rather a lot of the best episodes, including the famous “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” portray her as a tightly-wound killjoy, and kind of a cold person), I think it’s great to see older TV shows treated as worthy of serious, in-depth analysis, rather than nostalgia, and since no show is sacred, there’s nothing wrong with concluding that a famous or important show is wanting in some respect.

What reading the article brought home for me, though, is that it’s very difficult for a famous television episode to live up to its reputation: if you go into a famous TV episode expecting it to be incredible – and especially, expecting it to be incredibly funny – it will usually disappoint. When you’ve heard a lot about a television episode, it can’t live up to the hype once you watch it, because its reputation is partly based on the element of surprise. TV moments, particularly in non-serialized TV, become famous because we don’t expect them to be as striking and memorable as they are, and they become legendary among viewers who remember the delight of discovering them by accident. When you discover them on purpose, expecting them to be great, the impact is lost.

The way a non-serialized TV show is watched is sort of like the way many of us experience the collective body of work of a musician. We don’t experience it (most of the time anyway) in a linear way, from beginning to end; we come in at some point, become interested enough to find out more, and slowly get to know everything that person has done. A great episode of a favourite TV show, like a great song by a favourite artist, is one that jumps out and hits you as being better than the level of the person’s usual work (even if that usual level is very high). It is what you’ve come to expect from the work, and yet more than that. You were expecting the normal level of entertainment, and unexpectedly found that it was on a higher plane. That unexpectedness is what burns the experience into your memory.

Often the unexpected element comes from the subject matter, which is why many of the most famous TV episodes of all time are typical of the show in style but not in subject matter: “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is a typical David Lloyd-scripted Mary Tyler Moore episode except it’s about death; “Sammy’s Visit” is a typical All in the Family except it’s the only one with a celebrity guest as himself; “The Contest” would be a normal Seinfeld episode except that the subject had never been dealt with on a sitcom before. Other times, the episode isn’t anything unusual, it just seems to raise the usual approach of the show to a special level of perfection. The “Gone With the Wind” spoof on Carol Burnett, and the curtains bit in particular, is a famous TV moment I never quite got, because I’d already heard too much about it before I watched it. But to a regular viewer of that show, that moment stood out as being a particularly perfect example of what the show was trying to do.

In each case, the episode makes its greatest impact when you go in with your expectations pitched at just the right level. They don’t work if you go in “cold,” knowing nothing about the show, since they work better when you know the show and its conventions. (This is the tricky thing about non-serialized TV: in theory it’s aimed at the first-time viewer, but in fact it’s probably incomprehensible to the first-time viewer, because it has so many conventions and character quirks that you can only get truly familiar with by watching a lot of episodes. The episodes are not meant to be watched in order, but they still can be puzzling to a newcomer.) But they also don’t work that well if you go in expecting a masterpiece, because they’re only TV episodes, and can’t hold up to that level of expectation. They have the most power for the fan of the show who thought the show was always good, and was stunned and delighted to find an episode that was better than good. And that’s particularly true with comedy, where laughter is based on a combination of expectation and surprise. We laugh because we’re astonished at how funny it was, but it’s not completely without setup (the setup is our familiarity with the show and the fact that we liked it already; the surprise is that it was even funnier than usual).

This can also happen with a serialized show, but the difference there is that serialized shows are designed to have the most impact when the episodes are watched in a certain order, which means that the big moments often happen at certain key structural points within a season or a series. Part of the game producers of serialized shows now play with us is to fool us, and deliver great episodes or scenes where we wouldn’t normally expect them. But we do expect these shows to be at their very best when key plot developments occur; the great moments are not completely random. With a non-serialized show, a great episode can happen at any time, purely randomly, since there was nothing building up to the episode, and the events of the episode will not be mentioned next week. The more warning we have that something great is about to occur, the less interesting it will be.

It doesn’t just apply to television, mind you. But with a classic in another field, like say, literature, none of this matters as much. We don’t approach a classic work of literature expecting to be easily entertained; we know we’re going to have to work a bit at it, though in the end, after the work is done, we may decide that we don’t like it. But most TV isn’t like that. Most TV episodes are light entertainment, which means they are supposed to go down easy. It’s no good to tell someone to “work at” a commercial, mass-produced television episode. Even the best of them can’t stand up to that kind of scrutiny, not because they’re not art, but just because they were built to work as light entertainment first and foremost, and if they don’t work on that level, they don’t work on any deeper level either. So if a darkly comic novel about death does not have the element of surprise and novelty for us, it can still work for its larger themes about death. But if “Chuckles Bites the Dust” doesn’t work as a funny sitcom episode, the points about death, and the way we deal with death, don’t look that impressive. Commercial TV can have depth, just as a pop song can have depth, but not unless we first find it tremendously entertaining. The points it’s making will seem superficial and shallow without the entertainment value to give it resonance.

All this sounds like it’s building up to me shrugging my shoulders and giving up on the whole idea of recommending TV episodes. I won’t go that far. I just think we’re still looking for a good way of introducing non-current non-serialized TV shows to people. The method that works for the modern serial – watching from the beginning, or picking a season and watching straight through – does not work for most non-serials. What suits a non-serial best, probably, is syndication: you watch a show casually and constantly, not so much because you’re fascinated by it as because it happens to be on at a time when you have nothing to do. And gradually you get acclimated to the show and ready to be swept away by a truly great episode.

At some point, Netflix and the other repositories for old TV episodes (like the studios that may release old TV seasons as part of YouTube’s upcoming paid subscription package) might come up with methods of viewing that work better for non-serial shows: instead of watching from the beginning, they should recommend episodes to watch after the pilot, and have a program that causes another episode to be recommended for you depending on which one you just finished watching. Until that happens, the best way to appreciate a classic TV episode is still to stumble upon it almost randomly, having watched enough episodes to know what you’re going to get, but also to be surprised by what you do get. Because just as a great pop song only seems great in the context of the many other songs you’ve heard before, a great sitcom episode doesn’t always seem so great if you watch it as a free-standing work of art. Even stand-alone episodes don’t really stand alone.

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