It's possible to spare ourselves the slog of shows when they're just starting out.
Quarantine: when jobs have either been lost or relegated to the living room, wherein social functions are limited to Zoom, wherein the 24-hours in a day can really be felt.
With less to physically fill the time, the time remains unfilled. Fortunately, sequestered humans have never had such a bevy of entertainment options available to them. But that kind of freedom can be paralyzing. Never has there been a better time for binge-watching, but what are we to binge? And how?
Since all this free-time demands discipline, here's an unconventional suggestion: Pick one of the all-time great shows, something you've always wanted to watch but couldn't find the motivation nor time to do so, and start not at the beginning, but at season three instead. Whether it's a comedy or a drama or simply something you've put off watching because the plot is too involved or the show is too hyped, ignore the first two seasons entirely, and fall into a world that's already in motion. Using our knowledge of television in general, and by tapping into the cultural conversation of characters and references, we can spare ourselves the slow starts of seasons one and two, and get right to the meat of the matter. Why sit around waiting for a show to find itself? Why settle for less than the best?
First seasons are often uneven or uncertain, anyway. Second seasons are often better and more compelling, but shows that make it to season three emerge with a clear tone and complete characters: two necessities for any show with long-term success.
Examples abound of shows finding themselves in their third seasons. Arguably, the greatest comedies of the 21st century are The Office and Parks and Recreation, though contenders such as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Curb Your Enthusiasm are important to the discussion, as well. As for dramatic examples, look to the Olympic podium of TV's Golden Era: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Mad Men.
Mad Men Season 3 Promo Photo
A weighted-review aggregation site like Metacritic is not the law, but it is useful. The numbers almost universally favor third seasons and beyond. Parks and Rec improves in score from a 58 in season one to an 83 in season three, a change signifying an ascension from "mixed or average reviews" to "Universal Acclaim," in the critics' words. The Office's highest overall score is season three's 85. Breaking Bad starts solidly with its first two season garnering scores of 73 and 84, but in its final three earns marks of 89, 96, and 99, an unprecedented run of greatness. Game of Thrones' two highest marks of 91 and 94 are for seasons three and four, respectively. Mad Men is the lone outlier of the bunch, as its second season outscores its third by a single point. However, its fourth season, ruled a 92, is the series' high-point. Why? Shows generally hit their strides in season three.
First, character development peaks at season three. First seasons tend to be myopic about their characters, hoping that closeness will lead viewers to love them. Season two is the experimentation room, wherein worlds shift, and season three is the fruit of that labor, with confident characters and expanded worlds.
By season three, the main characters have been poked and prodded for two full seasons, experimented on until their truest selves have been revealed. How? Conflict. Characters are made complete, in mold and mindset, through consistent conflict. They are built through what are essentially a series of thought experiments: How would x react if y? A byproduct of such conflict is a fleshing out of a show's world. Conflict requires fresh subjects to be placed before a character, be they fresh faces, strange circumstances, or unfamiliar situations.
For instance, two of Parks and Rec's most iconic characters, Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger aren't introduced until the very end of season two, where they immediately begin foiling Amy Poehler and Rashida Jones, the series leads. Breaking Bad's first two seasons lack the series' big bad, Gus Fring, creator of the fictional restaurant, Los Pollos Hermanos, the logo of which adorns the show's most popular merchandise; yet, it's only introduced in concept at the tail-end of the second season. The Office changes dramatically in season three, adding mainstay Andy Dwyer, flirting with a young Rashida Jones, and cementing Jim and Pam's relationship, which was until then a typical will-they-won't-they situation. Once resolved, it formed the literal backbone upon which the show is built.
Once they got together, Jim-and-Pam as a concept burst outside the confines of the show they were in, taking up real-estate in the general pop culture consciousness. The great shows, the all-timers, the ones you really should be watching in this quarantine time, share this Jungian trait. One doesn't need to have watched Seinfeld to understand the terms "shrinkage" or "close-talker." "We were on a break," is just part of our dialect.
Though this principle doesn't inform our viewing of many great shows, it does so with some of our touchstone comedies, like the aforementioned It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Curb your Enthusiasm. Shows of this format don't have one cohesive story pulling them along; it's possible, if not normal, to jump around to the great episodes through seasons, without care for continuity. Once it's known that the characters in Always Sunny are narcissists who work at a bar, it's easy to understand any episode, to jump in without further background. Ditto Curb, where Larry David is culturally understood to be an off-putting schmuck, and that's all one must know for maximum enjoyment.
Because the DNA of these two shows, and their dramatic brethren like Grey's Anatomy and NCIS, is accessible via collective unconscious, we culturally understand that it's unnecessary to sit and watch every single episode in a row. We know enough from our general human wanderings that we can skip the fluff and enjoy the standout performances and pieces, allowing superfluous details to slowly fill themselves in, as they always do.
Which of the truly great shows don't also already exist in our cultural consciousness? Nobody goes in blind to any piece of art nowadays, so it's hard to think of even one. Everyone knows Tony Soprano is a gangster in therapy. Lost takes place on an island post-plane crash. Jon Snow in Game of Thrones is a bastard, and if that isn't abundantly clear, they'll say it five or six times an episode.
No show is ever entered into truly blind. Between our bevy of previous cultural knowledge and the practice we've had in consuming other content en media res, it's possible to spare ourselves the slog of shows when they're just starting out. We've just never strayed from the unimaginative formula that shows are best began at the beginning. But that's clinging to tradition alone. Shows in season three will contain characters at their most compelling, jokes at their most pointed, worlds at their most alive. The show itself will be easier to enjoy, and that enjoyment will come quicker. Is that not the point? Maximum enjoyment, minimum commitment.
And when it's all over, when you love these people desperately and want so bad to live in their world for just a few minutes more, you can rejoice! For there are two more seasons for you to watch, saved, untouched. Their growing pains will seem quaint, their iffy characterizations cute. And the exercise alone will make you feel powerful, able to ground yourself in a world in movement.
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No one else sees it, and I feel like I'm taking crazy pills.
There's a well-known line in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, in which a character claims, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."
Incidentally, did you know that Jon Hamm taught drama to eighth graders before he got into acting? In fact, before his breakout role as Don Draper in Mad Men, he thought of teaching as his safety net—a fallback position in case acting didn't work out. It would obviously be unfair to use that fact alone as evidence that Jon Hamm can't act, but I feel like being unfair, because no one seems to agree with me on this point.
I've searched for validation on this, but googling "Jon Hamm bad actor" turns up pages of results about how great he is. And he certainly was great on Mad Men. That show was really well cast, and Jon Hamm can play a stoic, performative thinker as well as anyone. He even won an Emmy for it—along with dozens of nominations for every TV award on earth. So, somehow, I have to account for the fact that, unlike seemingly everyone else on Earth, when I see Hamm in anything besides Mad Men, he just seems like a guy doing some acting. I must be wrong, and yet…
He's not awful by any means. He can sell a line and he has good comedic timing, but there are all these small details—in his smile, in the way he uses his eyebrows, in the way he looks at his co-stars—that seem so intentional that I can't believe him, even when his line delivery is on point—and I'm not saying it always is. As Don Draper, it worked. Don was a performer himself—always pitching something, butting up against other male egos, and just generally living his life as an impostor. But am I really alone in finding his mannerisms jarring in his other work? The only explanation, as far as I can tell, is he's just too charming and sexy for anyone else to notice.
He's not just good-looking. That wouldn't be enough. He carries himself with a quiet self-assurance. He's calm, confident, unflappable, sexy. Most of us spend half our lives trying or pretending to be charming and sexy. When people see Jon Hamm doing it so effortlessly, they must misinterpret his natural abilities as a successful performance. That's the only explanation for the fact that all his little comedic cameos get so much praise, despite being the least convincing parts of whatever he's in.
I'm not saying that Jon Hamm has to go back to teaching. If we're going to keep putting him in movies because he's charming and sexy—and honestly seems like a really nice guy—I can totally live with that. I just want the rest of the world to acknowledge that that's what we're doing so I can stop feeling like I'm taking crazy pills.
Otherwise, I'll eventually have to face up to the fact that I'm the one with the problem. That maybe the reason I can never find Jon Hamm convincing is that I just find it hard to believe that someone so charming and sexy could really exist, when I spend half my life badly failing to be those things. Please, God, no.
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