One of the perks of being a professional critic is that I have a reasonable excuse for watching, reading and listening to things that I'd probably be watching, reading and listening to anyway (only slightly more abashedly). Because of the addition of our TV blog, I can publicly confess that I've been checking out almost all of the new fall shows, and insist to my friends that it's out of professional obligation, even though the truth is that I've been going thorugh this ritual since I was about 10, when I started marking up the TV Guide Fall Preview issue each year with a ballpoint pen.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to new TV shows. Some people–those who tend to think TV itself is a damnable waste of time–need strong persuading to tune into anything. Other people–those who think TV has the potential to be as artful as the best movies and books, or at least as reliably diverting–shrug off even the worst reviews, and decide to see for ourselves. Partly that's because we know that a good show can take three or four episodes to find its groove, and if the elements are in place, we trust that it can still get where it needs to go despite a shaky start. (For example, last season The Class had become a decent sitcom by the time it was cancelled, despite a crummy first month or so; and this season, I'm sticking with Back To You, even though it hasn't rewarded my patience thus far.)
And partly we watch because of The Fear. Everyone who fancies themselves as plugged in to popular culture knows about The Fear. It's that nagging sense that something is happening here but you don't know what it is. If everyone's talking about a movie, or an album, or a book, it's not so hard to catch up. But if it's three months into the TV season, everyone you know is raving about Lost, and you haven't watched an episode…well what do you do then, Mr. Jones?
Again, this emotion is only common to those who care about this kind of stuff. I know a lot of you are just as happy not to watch what everyone else is watching, and God bless you. You're better people than I. (Although I know jack-all about what's big on the music charts these days beyond what I read in Steve Hyden's column, so I guess in some ways I can identify.)
But for those of us who like to get in on the ground floor of a show, y'know, just in case, the question becomes: How much do we need to see to be conversant? Just the first episode? Two or three? Half a season? When do you cancel that TiVo subscription? (Or are you the type to eschew subscriptions altogether and just record on a week-to-week basis, Jim Leyland style?).
Frankly, if you've watched enough TV, one episode should probably be enough to know whether a show is something you'll be interested in following. I watched the first Ugly Betty last year, and the first Gossip Girl this year, and while both seemed fine for what they are, if I'd watched anymore it would be because I felt like I had to, rather than because I was really enjoying them. This season's been tough though, because we've been plagued with shows that click along merrily and enticingly in their first episode, and then sputter some (or even a lot) in their second. It's like their creators weren't expecting the pilot to get picked up, so they poured all their good ideas into episode one.
So far I've only dumped one of those, Chuck, because I feel like if I hear that it's ramping up later on, I can drop back in without having missed much. But on the borderline right now? Bionic Woman, Journeyman and Reaper, all of which are going to need a tone shift and/or proof of stronger storytelling possibilities if I'm going to keep them past this week. Meanwhile, the second episode of Dirty Sexy Money and the airing-tonight second episode of Aliens In America are both down a notch from their pilots, but still very entertaining, so both still look to be at the top of the fall class. And my semi-guilty pleasure of this season has been Life, which is formulaic and more than a little goofy, but enjoyable as all get out. (But then I'm a sucker for quirky detective shows…I kind of miss Raines, truth be told.)
Honestly though? Even while I'm watching every pilot I can (or care to), I'm kind of rooting against them all. I don't need more shows to watch than I was watching at the end of last season. The frustrating thing is that I can talk myself into sticking with just about any show, because there's always one actor, one plotline, one potentially interesting idea that I can see becoming worth my 22-46 minutes every week. After all, it's not like it costs me anything but time. Then again, this past couple of weeks, time has been dear, what with trying to shoehorn in baseball, football and Ken Burns' The War between all these new shows. It's been a little brutal. I wish I didn't feel obliged to watch Journeyman tonight. But then…The Fear…The Fear…