This week’s question comes from A.V. Club assistant editor Alex McLevy:
What TV show that you love did you first watch out of order?
This feels like a question specifically tailored to an earlier time in television, back when syndication was king, serialization was reserved only for the soapiest of shows, and no one could envision our current “Here’s all 11 seasons of Frasier, just a click away” digital binge-scape. Unsurprising, then, that the first show I thought of is one I fell in love with back when I was a kid, when reruns of Newhart began popping up on local TV, introducing me to poor, put-upon innkeeper Dick Loudon and his host of Green Acres-but-way-more-clever neighbors. When Nick At Nite began airing the show in 1997, I was shocked to discover its bizarre-by-not-being-at-all-bizarre first season, which was not only shot on video (in contrast to the rest of the series), but which also totally inverted the series’ format by making Dick’s occasional weirdo neighbors the exception, rather than the rule. As a fan of “Bob Newhart is the last sane man in the universe,” I appreciate coming to the show late; those latter seasons are a lot more fun, and I don’t know if I would have given that normcore initial impression a second chance.
Season three of Veronica Mars is widely recognized as the worst one, with the witty mystery show losing some of its recurring characters, shifting its tone to appeal to a broader audience, and ditching some of the themes that drove so much of the show’s first seasons, but the attempt to hook new viewers actually worked. On me, at least. I came into Veronica Mars on the first episode of its third season after hearing good things from pop culture writers on the internet (the world’s wisest community), so any dips in quality from the previous seasons were totally lost on me. These were the days before streaming, and it wasn’t until near the series finale that I was actually able to afford the DVD sets of the first two seasons and catch up on everything I missed. As it turns out, those first two seasons are really good, and I would’ve missed out on them if the show hadn’t tried to draw in new viewers. Hell, I even like season three’s weird theme song!
I started The Wire with its last season. I know, I know. This was way back in halcyon 2008, when “not having seen all of The Wire” was a condition shared by most of the general population. On the night of the finale, I was staying for the weekend with a friend who had been an enthusiastic early adopter. (When we’d lived together in college, I would do my impression of the show, yelling about “Balmer” and “being the wire-cops.” He found it hilarious!) Anyway, it was Sunday night, I wasn’t leaving until the next day, and there was no way he wasn’t watching this episode when it aired, so we plowed through about half of the last season that afternoon, with various refreshers along the way. An underrated element of The Wire’s greatness is the immediacy of its individual scenes, the way its characters trail their various histories into such tightly plotted individual interactions. I was sold, and it didn’t even spoil much. I plowed through the whole show later that summer.
Despite recent trends toward giving their detectives way too much of a backstory, most procedurals have a low bar for entry—you can really just jump right in with a basic-cable marathon. So though I’ve seen every episode of its 20-season run, I didn’t start watching Law & Order until Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) had begun his tenure as executive assistant district attorney. I was hooked by Jack and Claire (Jill Hennessy) as much as the ripped-from-the-headlines of it all, but found myself just as drawn to the more competitive aspect of his relationships with later ADAs like Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) and Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon). That’s the real reason I went back and started from the beginning, to see how Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty) and Paul Robinette (Richard Brooks) worked together. I’m glad I did because Moriarty brings an entirely different energy to the role: He’s the embodiment of still waters that run deep, though I’d argue his glower was more withering than Waterston’s. The character of Ben Stone cast a long shadow, one that’s lingered 25 years after Moriarty departed L&O and has since found its way to spin-off Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Just as crucial was Mr. Robinette’s storyline and his turmoil over being part of an inequitable criminal justice system; he eventually returned to the series to battle against McCoy from across the courtroom aisle. Brooks more than matched Moriarty’s simmer; but while both Stone and Robinette suffered from some erosion of their belief system, Brooks had to convey more of a free-fall in that area, which made starting at the beginning all the more rewarding.
I’m not into Doctor Who or, for that matter, the majority of sci-fi, so I have no idea what propelled me to sit down with Torchwood: Children Of Earth back in 2010 (honestly, it might’ve been this A.V. Club rave). Children Of Earth, the third season of the Doctor Who spin-off, opts for a darker and more layered tone than previous seasons, with the sociopolitical impact of its core crisis getting as much play as its action sequences. I couldn’t have made such a distinction then, however. I didn’t even know there were previous seasons until I was an episode and a half in, having no dang clue who anybody was. I got a grip on it all eventually, deeply enthralled by the high-stakes drama and sharp character work infused into what was, on its surface, a rather grotesque bit of pulp. I quickly dug into the show’s back catalog and, though I was disappointed by the procedural thrust of the early seasons, I remained charmed enough by John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness that I stuck around. Wait. Barrowman. That’s why I watched Children Of Earth. Barrowman was in Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, which I was obsessed with at the time. I made it my beeswax to follow this man to the ends of the earth, which turned out to be a pretty great decision.
I didn’t get into Buffy The Vampire Slayer until it was almost over. The original 1992 movie made zero lasting impression on me, and film-to-TV show adaptions were generally so dire that I couldn’t conceive of what the show could do to be an improvement on the movie. As it turns out, the show did oodles to improve on the movie. I came across an episode randomly one night and was amazed by how completely I had misjudged the show’s tone. I remember calling my then girlfriend (now wife) on the phone (a landline!) to share my amazement of how funny it was. I didn’t know that it was an option for a show about demon-slaying to be clever, self-aware, and yet still invested in the characters and their development. After that, I was all in. It was summer, so I watched every repeat I could before the seventh, final, season began, which my wife and I watched religiously. I still remember finishing up my cashiering shift before racing over to her apartment just in time to swill wine and watch Sunnydale get destroyed for good.
I’m pretty sure it was somewhere in the middle of season three that I actually started watching The X-Files in earnest. There was already an entire mythology and elaborate backstory at that point involving the Cigarette Smoking Man, the kidnapping of Dana Scully, and Mulder’s partner-turned-enemy Alex Krycek, but I didn’t really know about any of that. What I saw that season was a bunch of great stand-alone episodes involving whichever monster of the week struck Darin Morgan’s fancy while he was high at his writing desk, or whatever. The psychic tomfoolery of “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” the train-bound kineticism of “731,” and of course the all-time classic “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” entranced me with the combination of wit and weirdness. Of course, young me had no idea the show’s roster was stacked with heavy hitters like Morgan and Vince Gilligan—all I knew was here was a show that seemed hardwired to all my nerdy interests. By the time I picked up on the basics of Chris Carter’s overly elaborate puzzle-box mysticism and long-game conspiracies, I had already fallen for the simplicity of an odd-couple FBI team investigating paranormal cases. I eventually retraced my steps, but you always remember your first love, and season three remains my favorite.
When it was announced that Greg Daniels was developing a spin-off of The Office, my curiosity was piqued. When news broke that the show was no longer a spin-off, but would retain The Office’s mockumentary format and star Amy Poehler and Aziz Ansari, my anticipation levels shot through the roof. So it was with disappointment that I eventually tuned out from the first season of Parks And Recreation, which did more than map the U.S. Office’s look and feel onto local government—it copied its brief, wobbly, midseason introduction, too. Unfortunately, this meant I missed the show pulling one final page from its predecessor’s book—a crucial recalibration of the lead character between seasons one and two—until positive second-season buzz brought me back to Pawnee sometime in the spring of 2010. I was fully onboard in time for “Stop. Pooping,” “Go get me another Snork Juice,” and other highlights of Parks And Rec’s near-perfect third season, the delayed premiere of which had one silver lining: It gave me enough time to catch up on everything I’d missed via DVD, filling in the blanks on mysteries such as “When did Leslie start to chill out?” “When did Summer’s hippie boyfriend from the fourth season of The O.C. get less annoying?” and “How did I blow the opportunity to watch the last great two-hour NBC Thursday-night comedy block in real time?”