The Devin’s Advocate: Should You Start A TV Series At The Beginning?

As TV shows get more and more serialized, how should you approach them? And more importantly, how should the show runners approach them? Where’s the line between accessible and awesome?

Last night Onion AV Clubbers Noel Murray (@noelmu) and Scott Tobias (@scott_tobias) had a really interesting discussion on Twitter: should you start a TV show at the beginning of the series?

The discussion grew out of the FX series Justified; I believe that Tobias took issue with statements on Slate’s Culture Gabfest podcast, where some of the participants had only watched a season two episode of the show. Tobias felt that there was too much history, too many character moments from season one, to make a single-shot viewing of Justified reasonable.

Murray, on the other hand, more or less argued that television is an episodic medium, and that any TV watcher with a brain can come into a regular series episode and figure out the major backstory and character relationships.

I find myself leaning towards Murray in theory; a TV show may have a serialized, longform story, but it’s being told episode by episode. It’s crazy for show creators to make most of those episodes impenetrable to newcomers. People should be able to jump on later in the series or the season and be able to get coherently up to speed. A good TV show isn’t a long story cut up into episodes, it’s a bunch of good individual stories that, when strung together, tell a long story.

But I lean towards Tobias in practice. In the modern era, where everything is on Netflix or DVD or Hulu, I hate coming in to a show on season two or in the middle of the season run. I prefer starting at the beginning. But this means I end up watching fewer shows - nothing deters me from checking out a show than someone telling me ‘It gets good on episode 10.’ Frankly I have better things to do with nine hours of my life than invest them in a show that might finally improve. If I were smart I’d just watch episode 10 and then pick up on the subpar first nine later.

As much as this is a question about our own personal OCD tendencies, it feels like an important question for TV show runners to begin pondering. TV has made a shift towards the serialized; a decade ago a show like Justified would have been just stories of the week, with minimal serialization. Now it’s expected that any show worth watching will have a larger story arc in addition to its weekly story.

We’re moving towards a world where TV seasons almost feel like miniseries; HBO’s coming A Game Of Thrones is a ten part adaptation of a novel, with proposed future seasons to adapt more novels in the series. With that sort of tight storytelling the quality of TV shows increase, and with DVRs being ubiquitous show runners can feel more comfortable telling complex stories without losing people along the way. But where’s the room for the newcomer to enter? How can shows balance the quality and pleasures of longform storytelling with giving people the ability to jump onboard the tale without making a huge time and money investment in catching up?

Weigh in below.