We’ve all had the experience of feeling that a show we like has jumped the shark. But I think we’ve also had the opposite experience — thinking that a show is about as good as it always was, when the consensus is that it’s having a bad season. It’s hard for me to come up with a current example, because this year most of the trainwrecks deserve their reputation for trainwreckishness; I’m not about to defend Heroes season 2 or 3. But sometimes I’ll hear that a show has collapsed, or isn’t as good as it was last year, when I haven’t noticed much of a difference myself.
Now, this usually happens with shows that I only follow casually, as opposed to being a watch-every-episode kind of guy. And when you’re a casual viewer of a show, it’s harder to be disappointed with a particular season. I never really thought that the second season of Desperate Housewives was that big a drop-off from the first, but if I had been a bigger fan of that show, I might have been more aware of where the show was going wrong in its treatment of the characters and the premise.
Whereas when I’m really into a show, I am very aware, almost hyper-aware of any violations. You’ve seen it in my posts about How I Met Your Mother; and you would have seen more of it if I’d written the post I was planning to write about this week’s episode. (“The Naked Man” was one of the funniest episodes this season, but like a number of other fans, I’ve been disturbed by the hostile messages the show is sending out about Robin in particular and single women in general; last week, we’re told that women who haven’t landed a man are inherently pathetic. This week, we learned that it’s okay for a man to manipulate a woman into sleeping with him, but if she does so, she’s a slut.) I’ve been aware of weaker or less-comprehensible patches in the run of The Shield, whereas, with 24 (which I like, but doesn’t grab me), I’m not always sure which seasons are supposed to be worse than the others; except for season 1, which was better than anything that came after it, the “good” seasons have similar flaws and virtues to the “bad” ones.
When you watch a show on and off (or even if you watch every episode, but don’t have an emotional commitment to the show), as long as it offers the same characters and the same setting, it still seems like basically the same show. That explains the famous paradox of TV fandom: that the biggest fans of a show spend more time complaining about it than the people who aren’t huge fans. Only if you’re a really big fan of a show can you notice everything that’s wrong with it. If you’re not a huge fan, you don’t usually see a decline unless something big changes (a major cast member leaving, a cute kid being added).
Sometimes, though, the casual fan may be closer to the mark than the big fan. Sometimes I think that when I’m a big fan of a show, I get too close to it, to the extent that I’m too aware of every change in the formula. That kind of thing can make an episode a disappointing experience even if, by other standards, it’s good. I remember going through something like that with The Simpsons; I noticed that the show’s style was a little different in seasons 7 and 8 (when BIll Oakley and Josh Weinstein ran the show) than it had been in the previous two years (which is when I really got into that show), and that led me to feel disappointed in most episodes, because it just didn’t feel like the Simpsons I was used to. Now I think that those seasons are among the best. It’s hard to know, when you’re watching an episode as a fan who knows everything about the show, exactly if the disappointment is nit-picky or if it’s related to a flaw at the heart of the episode. That only becomes clear over time. (To keep on The Simpsons, it’s now clear to most people that the show really did take a downhill turn when Mike Scully took over the show. But at the time, it was like The Boy Who Cried Wolf; fans had been saying “worst episode ever” for so long that it wasn’t immediately clear that the Scully episodes were a problem for big, fundamental reasons instead of just a generic fan resistance to change.) I think someday we’re going to look back at recent TV seasons and see them a little differently; in time it’ll seem to me like some of the shows that looked jump-the-shark-ish were just about the same as before, while some other shows were going through major declines that weren’t apparent at the time.
It goes without saying, by the way, that whether a show is good or bad, improving or declining, is a matter of opinion, and if you like or dislike a particular season, the “consensus” hardly matters. (Except in my belief that season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was way better than season 5, which is proven solid fact.)